Friday, 29 April 2011

Source Code: it's possible Duncan Jones only has one theme

I'm quite a fan of Duncan Jones' deceptively simple SF debut Moon, but as I was watching his bigger budget follow up Source Code, I found myself preoccupied with the way in which the second film tracks the themes of the first one. I gather that the internet is full of complaints about how Source Code doesn't make a lick of sense, all of which complaints presumably summarise down to "How the hell can one random guy picked out of the rubble have detailed memories of everything else in a whole commuter train?" To all of which I say, for goodness sakes, biatches; this is the conceit we have to accept for the movie to work. Worry about why a lone terrorist would have a dirty nuclear bomb and take a moment to blow a commuter train up beforehand. THAT's silly.

But I wasn't losing too much fretting time over that kind of thing. Expecting Hollywood thrillers to make sense is not a good use of resources at the best of times, but once you make the jump to a thriller with a science fiction premise; forget logic. As I say, what interested me was all the echoes to Moon.

In Source Code, the action is focused on one actor, who's stuck either in a train, or in a cramped capsule. He's only got one person he can really talk to, and even that conversation is through a computer interface. He's being systematically deceived about his real situation and the people controlling him don't really care whether he lives or dies as long as they get what they want. He spends the first half of the movie figuring out his predicament, and the second half finding a way to get out of it, eventually pulling off an unlikely happy ending which allows him to escape from his predicament and blow the lid off the company which put him into it.

In Moon, the action is focused on one actor, stuck in a single location with no company except for a computer. He's been systematically deceived about his real situation and the people controlling him don't care... You can see where I'm going here, I hope. The actual plots are very different, but the underlying preoccupations are strikingly different. In Moon, Sam Rockwell is the lone minder of an automated moon mining facility who gradually realises that his employers have decided that it's cheaper just to leave him there rather than bother with the trouble and expense of bringing him back. If you actually think about the way the employers have decided to implement their cold blooded scheme, it doesn't make a lick of sense either in money or physics terms, but the movie actually works very well. In Source Code, Jake Gyllenhall is an army officer who's been told by his commanders that he's been implanted with the fragmentary memories of a bombing victim in order to try to figure out how the bombing happened. He gradually realises that the commanders are up to something a good deal more coldblooded than that. The underlying notion that you could somehow get usable results by implanting the last eight minutes of a dead man's life into someone else's mind is ridiculous, but if you roll with that, the rest of the movie works.

Like Moon, the film lives and dies on the performances, and just like in Moon, Jones was careful to get good actors. Gyllenhall is in pretty much every scene and has to do an awful lot of hard work, but he just about carries it all off. Michelle Monaghan, an actress who I've actually seen steal a scene without either dialogue or movement (in Gone Baby Gone) isn't given as much to do as she's capable of, but is consistently solid as the most important train passenger. However, the movie lives and dies on the interplay between Vera Farmiga, as the army controller, and Gyllenhall. Farmiga is an actress who does smart women very well, and can get away with a lot in underplaying scenes. That knack for underplaying things works out very well in her scenes with Gyllenhall, where Gyllenhall is getting more and more hysterical about the plight he's in, and Farmiga really sells the idea of a professional maintaining a precarious calm over increasing agitation. That realistic interplay just about maintains the in-world credibility of the ridiculous plot.

There's a lot of fun to be had, all the same. Gyllenhall gets a lot of funny interactions with the other train passengers, and there's a nice relaxed vibe to his connection with Michelle Monaghan. As he keeps having the relive the same eight minutes in dozens of different ways, he gets more and more assured and casual about things, and there's a lot of humour in the way he maintains focus on talking to Monaghan or saving the world while mechanically dealing with all other things which he's done dozens of times before. By the time the film reaches a climax, we're rooting for his improbable victory over his predicament, and the unlikely happy ending just feels warm and satisfying rather than glib.

Still, I do wonder. What will Jones' next film be about?

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Burning Wire: Jeffrey Deaver

A long time ago I read A Maiden's Grave, by Jeffrey Deaver, and was instantly very impressed. It was a cleverly plotted book with a good scattering of relateable characters, and some very clever writing which gave the prose equivalent of the fake-outs which TV and movies have always been so good at. I've read a fair number of Deaver's books since then, and the law of diminishing returns has really set in with a vengeance. This might, perhaps, have been something I saw coming.

Deaver's big earner for the last few years has been his Lincoln Rhyme books. It wasn't the first time he made a stab at the notion of a repeating character, but it was the first time that a repeating character broke out of the detective novel ghetto. Apparently he's got four books where the repeating character is a location scout or some such, and I've never felt the slightest urge to read them. The first Lincoln Rhyme book, The Bone Collector, was a runaway success and got turned into a movie with Denzel Washington playing Lincoln Rhyme (since the character was so plainly intended to be played by Christopher Reeve, I've never been able to figure out quite how it went THAT way, but hmmm). The second of those books, The Coffin Dancer, was probably the last Deaver book I read and really enjoyed; everything since then has been the triumph of hope over experience.

There's something very mechanical about Deaver's books now. The clever reveals and fakeouts aren't surprising or fresh any more, and there's something appallingly desultory about the characterisation.

Now, I knew that this was going to be a problem when I picked up The Burning Wire. All series detective novels start to become rote and mechanical and I'd read most of the other Rhyme novels and plotted the fall off. The only permitted character development is in the main character, and everyone else is marking time, all working with their one designated distinguishing feature (one recurring character has, as his sole character beat, an interest in ballroom dancing - it's all he gets, and it's always thrown in as a single sentence in the entry paragraph in each book - perfunctory is the only word for it). So I figured that this wouldn't be up to much, but sometimes you want something undemanding. And I set the bar pretty low, because Deaver's really churning stuff out these days and even his non-recurring stuff has been pretty flat (the most recent, The Bodies Left Behind, was something that looked really promising when I bought it, and it turned out to be a real wash-out).

But even with that low bar, The Burning Wire came in way under my expectations. Same old set-up; Lincoln Rhyme, genius quadraplegic forensic scientist, sends his ever growing troupe of one-note investigators out to look at scenes of crimes which are weird, and dominated by some over arching technical aspect which Deaver has just been reading up on - in this case electricity. Someone, probably a modestly paid researcher, has run out and done a boat load of homework on this, all of which is piled onto the page with the same care and attention I expect when a school cafeteria serves up mashed potatoes, and to pretty nearly the same effect on my appetite. I appreciate that most of the people who are reading these books don't know much about anything - I for example don't know much about learning that a man who's just written six straight books in a row that I didn't like reading has probably just written another one just like it - and therefore will need electricity explained to them in baby talk, but there has to be a better way of doing than this than asking us to buy into the idea that Lincoln Rhyme, a latter-day Leibniz, could somehow have survived collecting multiple science degrees without picking up the fundamentals of electricity. Hell, I I trained as a mere lawyer, and apparently I know more about electricity than Rhyme, a man who apparently felt able to complete his studies of physics by concentrating on only three of the fundamental forces of the universe (this is actually how it's put in the book) and skipping electricity entirely. That would be electricity, the only fundamental force which has been successfully manipulated in some way by pretty much every human alive today. Maybe that was what put it beneath his interest, I don't know.

Anyhow. It's all a damn shame, really, but I think I've had enough of Deaver for the moment. I think I'm all Rhyme'd out. But - and I do mean this - A Maiden's Grave and The Coffin Dancer are well worth your time as simpleminded timepassers. Just don't make the same mistake that I did. When Deaver puts something new in front of you and says it's going to be just as good as  last time, he's probably just faking you out.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

James Lovegrove: Age of Ra

I may have already said that I need to stop buying books purely because they've been recommended by the Grauniad, but it does bear repeating, if only in the hope that I might start listening to the things I say.

Age of Ra is the first book of a trilogy, and deploying the immense reserves of stupidity which have made me such a boon to web-shops throughout the civilised world, I actually bought all three books without considering that the first one might put me right off the other two. In part this is a holdover from when I was much younger and it was more cost efficient to buy on line if you bought in bulk, but I really ought to know better.

It has taken me ages to finish Age of Ra, because I rapidly realised I'd rather do almost anything else than pick it up again. It's not even bad enough to be funny. It's just "meh".

It's a shame, but I think what happened was that Lovegrove shot his wad with the idea, and then didn't have a book, as such, to go with it. The notion of a world where the whole place is run by the gods of Egypt; interesting. The idea of exploring it by showing it to us through the eyes of the doomed plucky rebels fighting against it; boring. The rebels aren't that interesting and the big twist in the rebellion is one of those things that reads more like the writer trying to paint himself back out of a corner than a carefully managed plot. Stuff happens, more stuff happens, then some other stuff. Then the book is blessedly, tediously, over with.

And I still have two more to go. There's the Age of Zeus, which I dipped into the other day before putting to one side, and the Age of Odin. I already have a bad feeling about the Age of Zeus, because it's also about showing us the world through the eyes of the people rebelling against the status quo, and also because like Age of Ra it opens with an action beat that doesn't really go anywhere, like the cold open on a million dumb episodes of TV. Age of Odin comes last, and it's the one which actually got a good review. Lord knows whether I'm going to get to it, but then again, I went on line today to see if Don Winslow's Savages was in paperback yet, and it turns out that I won't have anything good to read there till September. I might just have slogged through the other two ages by then.

The Redbreast: Jo Nesbo

A former colleague of mine is promoting the rather splendid idea that since the country's on its knees, our best shot is to rejoin our colonial overlords and let them look after us. However, unlike various craven stooges of MI6 such as you might see suggesting this in some of our national newspapers, the colleague has thought laterally about overlords. We live in a much conquered island, after all, and it turns out that we have at least one incredibly wealthy former owner which might take us on. The Norwegians have been pulling oil out of the North Sea for decades now, and since they make all their own electricity with hydro, they've been able to export most of it. Now the Norwegian state pension funds own about 2% of all European equity. And since they occupied most of our eastern seaboard long before the idea ever occurred to the ancient foe, I reckon they've got first claim. All we have to do is think of a way to invite them back.

While we're mulling that over, we need to think about what we'll do when this harmonises us with Norwegian crime rates. As I've mentioned before, Scandiwegia seems to be afflicted with heroic amounts of fictional criminal activity. All those long nights and the lack of cheap booze, I suspect. Jo Nesbo's got longstanding form here, and has been banging on the head of his hapless detective protagonist since some time in the 90s. The books started popping up in translation in Ireland about five or six years ago, and for reasons which I can't quite fathom have recently been savagely discounted, so I bought a bunch of them on the basis that if I didn't like them I could find someone else who did. Redbreast is the first of his books to have been translated into English, and we find Harry Hole in media res, having done interesting things in Bangkok and Sydney. Well, the other characters in the book think they were interesting, but I have my doubts. If they were that interesting, you'd think someone would have bothered to translate them into English.

Anyhow, Harry is one of those guys who only exist in fiction, really. He's a loose cannon, damn it. He's his own man. He's a drunk, but yet, he's incredibly effective as a detective. I don't have anything like the broad spread of acquaintance I ought to have, but in my limited experience of alcoholics, it's usually a bad idea to expect them to have much in the line of people skills. Addicts see everything through the addiction. Other people matter in the way they connect to the addiction, not for their own sake. That's not really a frame of mind that makes people horribly effective at anything other than ruining everything for everyone.

In fairness to Nesbo, Hole is actually pretty much as bad at most things as an alcoholic ought to be. He can't shoot straight, which I rather liked. Possibly just as well that he can't, since he exists in Nesbo's universe and Nesbo either doesn't know anything about guns or has made an executive decision that other people shouldn't learn anything about them from reading his books. The master plot, such as it is, rotates around a Marklin rifle which fires 16mm Singapore bullets. Marklin make train sets. There's no such thing as a Singapore bullet. There is also no such as a 16mm rifle, and hasn't been since the American Civil War, which is the last time anyone bothered with a bullet above .57 calibre in anything other than dedicated anti-tank rifles. I fuss about this not because I am a pedant, but because Nesbo makes such a damn big deal about the gun being a uniquely marvelous assassination tool.

The Redbreast is an odd duck of a detective novel, because it takes so long to get to its point. The engine of motivation for its criminals is the Norwegian experience of the Second World War, which is actually an interesting thing to get a spare perspective on, but the flashbacks into the 1940s are confusing in their setup and execution (I thought it was just me getting mixed up with all the funny names, but it turns out that there's some switchbacking going on in the viewpoints specifically to confuse and mislead the reader as to who's still in play). In modern times, one of the things I really liked was that the investigations get deadlocked and sidelined and take a long time; the action of the book unfolds episodically over six months. It's a shocking violation of the Aristotelian unities, but life doesn't respect the unities very well either.

But lands sakes, it's all very long all the same. 618 pages is a mad length for a detective novel. And I've got four more up in the third floor operations room just the same size. I wonder am I going to stick it all the way through. Hole's plainly going somewhere, but I don't know if I've got the patience to follow him.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Potsdam Station: David Downing

David Downing has a whole train station thing going on, with all four of his novels to date being named after various stations around Berlin. It's beginning to seem a little forced, though I'll stick my neck out here and say that the next one will be called Tempelhof Station.

It's tempting, this late at night, to call Downing a poor man's Alan Furst, since he's writing low key novels about intrigue around the time of the second world war. But Downing is much more focused than Furst, and while he's not the writer that Furst has proven, he's still capable of hammering together some compelling characters. Furst is the better stylist, and has a particular knack for putting together a resonant character with a few well chosen phrases. It's perfectly fair to say that there aren't any bit players in Furst's work, partly because the whole opus is ABOUT bit players, people around the edges of the huge action. Furst wants to show us what the twilight struggle meant to the people who never got written up afterwards.

Downing is playing a different kind of long game, trying to flesh out what it might have been like for the people of the time to grapple with the moral collapse of Germany, and what it might have cost individuals to try to maintain some decency in the face of it. All four novels to date have revolved around the same small cast of characters, and indeed the small cast of characters revolves around one pivot, John Russell. Although the latest in the books is marketed as a John Russell and Effi Koenen novel, the reality is that the sequence began with John Russell and he's still the engine of it.

The other big difference, thematically, is that Downing is writing about the big stuff; in earlier books Russell has wrestled with trying to get the word about the impending slaughter of Germany's Jews, and in this book one of the plot drivers is him being roped into Soviet efforts to get hold of German atom bomb secrets (given Germany's actual track record of producing atom bomb secrets, they'd have been as well off going after Homer Simpson's nuclear safety tips, but it's entirely credible that in 1945 the Soviets wouldn't have known that and would have been looking for every angle they could find).

Because Downing's books are about one guy and his friends and family and what happens to them, they're oddly disposable. Once I've found out where the latest book as taken things, I don't feel the need to read it again. With Furst I know that at some point, weather permitting, I'm going to be able to go back to the books and read them for the simple pleasure of character and incident, but the more tightly plotted Downing books don't have the same re-read value.

This is not to say that they're not solid work. They're very solid. One of the things I like is the way that Russell never really gets ahead; as close as he ever gets to victory is to survive to the next crisis. He's continually pulled between the German, English, US and Russian secret services, each trying to use and manipulate him with little heed for his survival, and in each book he just barely manages to play them off against each other for long enough to lurch into temporary safety. By the end of Potsdam Station, he's managed to pull off another one of these dodges, but the stakes keep getting higher and if there's a fifth book, Russell's going to be caught up in the Cold War in really awkward ways. My own betting is that the next one is going to unfold during the Berlin blockade, with a big side plot. But it's going to be a while before we see that.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Sucker Punch; will someone please buy Zack Snyder an X-Box?

And maybe a real girlfriend, I don't know.

It's certainly been a new experience. I don't often stir out of Conspiracy Towers' third floor operations room, not because it has everything I want, but because the blasted wasteland surrounding the Towers is utterly barren of the things my heart desires. Somehow I have to get by on the resources stockpiled in the operations room, and of course my own impressive reserves of self reliance and imagination. Still, a passing caravan of insane yokels dropped off a copy of Mr Snyder's new opus at the fleapit in the marketplace, so I put on protective clothing, made sure I had two forms of secure communication and an ample supply of the curious tokens the natives use for money, and set out on the arduous journey from the Towers to the echoing cavern of the fleapit.'re never too old to have a new experience. I have been the only person in a cinema before. I have been almost the only straight man in a CROWDED cinema before (The Devil Wears Prada; when I stood up at the end of the movie and saw the cinema just heaving with women and guys who had way too much grooming products, I almost grabbed the man I was with for comfort - but that would have sent exactly the message I didn't want to send....). This is definitely the first time that I've been able to say that if you added up the ages of everyone else in the cinema, it still would have summed to less than my own age. Way less. I was quite relieved to emerge blinking from the cinema and not find myself surrounded by armed police and child protective services, though mind you, in the newly pacified terrain surrounding Conspiracy Towers, it's generally best to PLAN for the occasions when you find yourself surrounded by armed police (personal best to date; 24, at which point I stopped counting for fear that they'd have a problem with my lips moving and shoot me on general principles).

It's my considered opinion that Sucker Punch is not suitable for thirteen year olds, even though it appears to have been written and directed by one. It will only give them the wrong ideas. Specifically, the wrong ideas about conflict resolution, negotiation technique, and the wisdom of trusting wizened old dudes who keep coming out with Chinese fortune cookie mottos instead of advice. If there are any 13 year old girls reading this blog, I have two things to say to you; firstly, for god's sake find something more useful to do with your time, and secondly, it's probably best not to take too much advice from old men who seem to be talking plausible nonsense.

Anyhow, Snyder has got terrible reviews for the movie, and it's not entirely fair. For example, the film is shockingly sexist, but the shocking part is that Snyder really, really hates men. Imaginary 13 year old girls who aren't reading this any more because I told them not to; men are not as appalling as Snyder thinks we are. We're dumb, heaven knows, and we'd probably rather be set on fire than try to explain what we're thinking or worse yet, try to understand what someone else might be thinking, but a sizeable majority of us get through our whole lives without pimping out the deranged, murdering the crap out of people at random, or even punching anyone outside of a playground. I'm just saying.

As for charges that Snyder disrespects women, you might as well charge him with disrespecting Venusians, because there's nothing in the movie to suggest that he's ever met, you know, actual women. Alternatively, I'm living in the wrong universe. Those are the two possible explanations for the fact that I've yet to meet a woman wearing an abbreviated sailor suit, thigh high stockings, a samurai sword and a Colt 45 with phone charms hanging out of it. I don't think I've ever spent any time at all in the company of any woman who dressed like anyone in this movie, at any time. So please, don't give Zack grief about how he depicts women. He depicts them with the same exacting attention to real life accuracy that he used for the Persian army in 300. Get over it.

The tagline for the movie is "You will be unprepared". This is only going to be true if you're brought into the cinema with a bag over your head, having been kidnapped from a country where they don't speak English, or have cinemas. Otherwise, you're pretty much going to be prepared. The only way you could conceivably be more prepared would be if the director came and personally tattooed the punchline on your head in mirror writing while holding you in front of a looking glass. It's not exactly a shocking twist ending. Anyone with the remotest familiarity with narrative technique is going to see the main punchline coming. So - and this may come as a newsflash to Zack Snyder and 13 year old girls everywhere, please dial down your expectations that you're going to be sitting through some shocking mutant cross breed of Inception and Donnie Darko. Not. So.

Which is not to say that it isn't fun. The dream sequences are daft fun, weird smorgasbords of video game tropes mashed through a hallucinogenic sieve. They're fun while they last, but it's surprising how quickly they become samey despite the visual flair and imagination with which they're carried off. Then you're back down to earth with a bang, watching the intermediate layers of dream and realising that a better movie about THAT phase could have been made by a better director. Everything which is wrong, and everything which is right, about Zack Snyder as a director, is summed up in the opening sequence. It's completely free of dialogue, it sets up the main action economically and with immense visual panache and emotional impact, and when it's over, it's all downhill from there. It's been said, with considerable justice, that the best bit of his adaptation of The Watchmen is the opening credits. This is more of the same. It's a little frustrating, really. Zack Snyder has talent, and can SHOW a story with real skill. He just doesn't seem to be able to TELL a story to the same effect.

As a purely personal grumble, I was disappointed in Emily Browning. Not just that Snyder isn't giving her much to do other than pout adorably and jump around athletically while showing us her pants (seriously, it's like some kind of sick live action Sailor Moon revival), but that somehow, in the seven years between her effective debut in A Series of Unfortunate Events and Sucker Punch, the utter luminosity she used to have has dissipated just a little. This happens. This is why I grumble about Chloe Moretz wasting her time on things. Teenage faces change so fast, and so unpredictably. Emily Browning is still a beautiful woman and a fine actress. But in her first film, she was quite literally otherworldly, and now she's not. The world is that little bit less marvellous. Ah well.

Anyhow, Sucker Punch. Is it a big pile of steaming dinosaur crap, or just another ho hum movie? In the end, it's just another ho hum movie. The fantasy sequences are big dumb fun, but the rest of the movie doesn't work well enough as a character drama for the catharsis of the fantasies to feel earned. Snyder does the spectacle well, if pointlessly, but can't quite hit the right tone in the real world. Which is not at all unexpected. I was not UNprepared. But having said that, he does a lot better at the real world than I thought he would. At no point is Sucker Punch an actively horrible movie. It isn't, for example, the sprawling self indulgent mess that Southland Tales was, to pick another personal vision movie with a gothic typeface for the title. And it's not remotely as eyewateringly terrible as Showgirls, a film which seems to have operated as Snyder's Cliff notes for the middle framing narrative.

On the other hand, a giant manga walking robot with machine gun hands and a pink fluffy bunny rabbit painted on its head is authentically awesome, and I want one just like it for my robot army.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Park Chan Wook; Thoughts on the Vengeance Trilogy

This week was Korean cinema marathon week at Conspiracy Towers. I sat in the third floor operations room of the Towers with my new television set, and pigged out on Korean movies I'd been meaning to watch for years. I like Korean cinema, partly because it's not been taken hostage by Hollywood's homogenised take on plotting and partly because not knowing who the hell any of the actors are means I have no idea who I'm supposed to be rooting for, and consequently things will surprise me.

Not knowing who you're supposed to be rooting for gets taken to extremes when you sit down and watch any of the work of Park Chan Wook, who is possibly the best known of Korean directors and who I'd rather assumed was just a violent lunatic. Having watched four of his movies more or less back to back in a matter of days, I can see that it's a lot more complex than I thought it all was. The Vengeance trilogy got a lot of coverage because of the over the top violence in Oldboy (I have yet to see a comment on Park Chan Wook's collected work that leaves out the live octopus eating scene in Oldboy) and the general level of brutality in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy in particular.

All that violence is there, and some of it's pretty hard to watch. I don't know that I could watch Oldboy again. I'm not sure if I could watch Sympathy for Mr Vengeance again either. They're tough going, and it's not just because the violence is brutal; it's because the brutality is just not funny. I don't often buy into the idea that you can make a message movie - I forget who said that you can't make an anti-war movie because war always looks glamorous, but he had a good point - but I think Park Chan Wook pulled it off here. He uses the horrible nature and consequences of violence to hammer home the point that it's NEVER the right answer. It works because, against all my expectations, it became clear to me that Park Chan Wook genuinely seems to like people, and because he likes people, he makes the viewer like them. And then, when he breaks them up, it matters.

Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is a great big mess of a movie, in which practically the entire cast kills itself off over the course of two hours in what starts out as a perfectly simple effort to get a kidney transplant. It's like a Jacobean tragedy dragged kicking and screaming into the cement wasteland of modern day Korea. Even as the various cast members kill each other horribly, you can see how what's gone before has driven them beyond madness and then beyond redemption, and appreciate that, in the same circumstances, you wouldn't do much better. Although the plot's ludicrously farfetched (deafmute kidnappers, black market organ dealers...) it's somehow very grounded; the extreme behaviour seems like the kind of thing which might well be within the grasp of any of us.

Oldboy, on the other hand, is barking mad right out of the box; an elaborate and entirely insane revenge saga in which one character is imprisoned for fifteen years for no apparent reason and goes on a rampage of revenge when he's released. It's only as he kills and tortures his way through the conspiracy that we start to see that the imprisonment was itself an act of revenge. A completely irrational act of revenge which winds up utterly destroying everyone involved, and which began with a misunderstanding ramped up to ludicrous levels. There's a lot of really tough going in Oldboy, much of it involving simple things like scissors and hammers, and it honestly doesn't make a lick of sense. Still when you buy into the idea that there's a criminal business model that can make money out of running a private prison for settling grudges, you sort of forfeit the right to complain about things not making enough sense.

What pulls the whole thesis together is the icily perfect Lady Vengeance. The elevator pitch for the movie has to have been the idea that the protagonist would have a thirteen year long plan to scheme her way through jail and back out again so as to take revenge on the person who put her there. And that's very well done, but it's not the point of the movie. The point of the movie is the back end, when Lady Vengeance has trapped her target and the film slows right down to let most of the cast talk through whether they're going to take a personal revenge or turn the bad guy over to the law. The bad guy is quite straightforwardly a monster; he has no saving qualities at all. And yet, the question of what to do with him remains a hard one for the other characters to answer, and the film takes a long time over it. It's perhaps the most deliberate and careful spelling out so far of what Park Chan Wook has been getting at all along; revenge may be compelling, but it has a price and consequences that may wind up being even heavier than the original wrong.

While I was at it, I also took in JSA/Joint Security Area, Park's first big feature and one of the biggest grossing films in Korea. It's a difficult movie to describe, since it's all about digging out the truth behind a border incident between North and South Korea, and talking about what happens blows up the plot. There's a lot of incidental annoyances from the framing narrative; a joint Swiss-Swedish investigation is perfectly acceptable, but the notion that the investigators would be talking among themselves in English kept bugging me. There's no good reason for that, or for the idea that the lead Swiss investigator would speak English with a pronounced Korean accent (when her backstory was that she had grown up in Switzerland with an estranged Korean father). Details, details, and no details which would have bothered the actual intended audience. It's a very Korean film, about very Korean preoccupations, but it's anchored still in that distinctive vision that even though people are essentially decent, a moment of weakness can have terrible consequences.

One thing which I see a lot in Korean cinema is a willingness to accept that there's no inevitability to happy endings. Two of the best Korean movies I've seen, The Chaser and The Host both set up situations in which Hollywood would have had the hero save the day, and instead show the hero just missing. It's utterly wrenching in both cases, all the more so since we've been programmed by Hollywood to expect good news. There's a toughness to Korean cinema, a sense that sometimes things just go horribly wrong. Park's films are in very large part about how we deal with that.

Spies of the Balkans: Alan Furst

God bless Alan Furst, a writer with almost the comforting consistency of PG Wodehouse. Like Wodehouse, Furst sets all his books in a constricted world which has long since passed, and like Wodehouse the narrative is dotted with touchstones which seem to show up in every book, and like Wodehouse the protagonist is usually a bit at sea in a confusing world where other people know more than he does about the things which matter. Finally, like Wodehouse, there's usually at least one benign avuncular figure somewhere who can haul the protagonist's ass out of trouble when nothing else works.

Of course, Wodehouse wrote a world in which the worst consequence was that you might be socially ostracized or married to the wrong gel. Furst's writing about the cluttered arena of espionage and subversion during World War II, and the consequences are ... more serious. So is the writing, for the most part, but the quality of the writing is very high. I started reading Spies of the Balkans a few weeks ago and put it to one side simply because it was more fun than I needed at the time and there were some worse books I wanted to get out of the way. I got back into it this week and read my way through it in little chunks of twenty and thirty pages, which was somehow just perfect.

I've been reading Furst's books since long before he got respectable, and they've become steadily more - well, genteel isn't the right word, but they've got more and more restrained and low key. The structure doesn't change much from one book to the next; a comparative novice finds himself drawn into the undercover struggle against fascism, and four or five vignettes unfold as the novice tries to figure out the rules of the game he's found himself in. His first two novels, Night Soldiers and Dark Star, are more rigorously plotted and unfold over much longer periods; both begin well before the war and run to 1944. Since then his books have been much more loosely plotted and have covered much shorter periods of time, usually a year or less.

Inevitably, talking about them this way makes them seem very samey, but that's not really a problem. Crime novels are very samey, romance novels are very samey. What matters is the execution, and Furst's execution is exemplary. He writes very well, evoking not just the sense of time and place, but the main characters, with a deceptive deftness. Spies of the Balkans isn't by any means the best of his books, but it provides me with a handy place to expound on their general merits and quirks.

For example, there's his Hitchcock cameo gag; in every single book, he finds a way to drag the characters to Brasserie Heininger, and sit them under a mirror with a bullethole in it. In his first book, the main character narrowly avoids being shot dead in that restaurant, and a stray bullet catches the mirror. The mirror has had a cameo in every book since, and just as with Hitchcock's cameos the reader is torn between wondering how he'll pull it off this time and waiting for Furst to get it over with.

It takes quite a bit of beavering to pull it off in Spies of the Balkans, since the action of the book is supposed to be unfolding in the Balkans, and it's one of the few times that I've ever found myself in disagreement with how Furst is going about his work. The strength of what he does is that it's anchored very firmly in the plausible, almost banal world of every day compromise. No-one's given a mission which will save the world; what happens may be a matter of life and death for the people involved, but the big world consequences are credibly small, and consequently all the more gripping to read about. So it doesn't really ring true when Costa Zannis, the main character, a political policeman in Salonika, is the only person British intelligence can think of to get a downed airman out of Paris. It's to Furst's credit that he more or less pulls it off, and that it doesn't feel somehow forced. As I write this and reflect on it, I can see ways to make it more plausible; by the time France has fallen there's not much left of Europe even notionally neutral , and thus not that many places on the continent from which the operation could be launched, but even this isn't spelled out properly. Still, it's a relatively minor quibble in yet another expertly crafted book.

What bears repeating is the simple pleasure of the read itself. Over the course of eleven books so far, Furst has woven together a tapestry of loosely linked works with a distinctive flavour to them which honestly bears comparison to such long form classics as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books. They are full of compelling and charming characters, some of which recur from book to book in different roles, and they're so well put together that when the new protagonist trips over some familiar (to the reader) face from earlier, it's like that wonderful feeling you get when you run into a real world friend unexpectedly. I always find myself hoping to run into Janos Polanyi, and am agreeably surprised when he makes a comeback now and again.

Which we may perhaps see in another book; but regardless of who makes a comeback, the mirror in Brasserie Heininger will be there, and so will I.