MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

A Tale of Two Subtitled Mysteries

Although it’s difficult to argue raw numbers, statistics are only as good as the person interpreting them. Homicides and murders are especially tricky.

For example, the rates at which such crimes occur can be slanted to reflect something quite different than whole numbers. In 2008, more than 14,000 “unjustified” homicides were reported to the FBI by law-enforcement agencies, a huge number by any standards. That puts our per-capita murder rate ahead of all “affluent” nations, but in the mid-20s when all United Nations entities are polled.

Data collected from and about TV, movies and video games has been debated for decades, and spun within a hair’s breadth of incoherency. For example, while the Media Education Foundation has estimated that the average 18-year-old has witnessed 16,000 murders on TV, an organization known simply as SCMS has counted 76,000-plus “kills” in the 1,404 movies on video it has monitored in the last 20 years. SCMS has broken the numbers down by genre, actor and character.

Even if the homicide rate dropped to zero, one suspects Hollywood studios would continue to play cops-and-robbers as if it were 1956. Murder is engrained in our cultural DNA, after all, and American filmmakers have interpreted our affinity with guns, knives, axes, chainsaws, poison and ropes as well as any psychologist or social scientist.

Sadly, the rest of the world is catching up to the United States. Two recent imports attest to the ability of foreign filmmakers to play catch-up.

“In the 1980s, modernism brought with it more crime,” said Korean writer/director, Joon-ho Bong, whose Mother just opened in limited release. “Now, even Korean kids know the word, ‘psychopath,’” which is interchangeable in both languages.”

It would be easy for Americans to dismiss the villains in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as diehard Nazi sympathizers, with no real standing in modern Europe. The fact is, however, the perpetrators in this superb Scandinavian thriller probably would have raped and murdered young women, even if Adolph Hitler had never been born.

“As Europeans looking at America, we see how fascism exists in your country, too,” said Danish director Niels Arden Oplev. “You’ve had (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy and the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are still prevalent, as well.

“Fascism isn’t just a person running around in a uniform. It’s a mind frame, which impacts on human rights and humanity.”

Stieg Larsson, the author of the book from which Oplev’s movie was adapted, was a Swedish investigative journalist whose reporting often focused on right-wing extremists and hate crimes. His death, officially blamed on a heart attack, prompted fears that someone had finally made good on one of the many threats to his life.

Neither film would fit in the niche reserved for Noir and Neo-Noir mysteries; neither do the protagonists carry a badge, license or weapon. If there was a car chase or explosion in either movie, I missed it. Both are terrifically entertaining, nonetheless.

In Mother, a middle-aged herbalist is the only person in Seoul who believes that her dim-witted son was incapable of killing a promiscuous teenager and displaying her corpse on a rooftop for much of the city to see. The 28-year-old man had a bad temper when taunted, a spotty memory and propensity to drink.

Veteran Korean TV actor Kim Hye-ja plays wonderfully against type as Mother, a neighborhood eccentric who runs a herbal apothecary and performs unlicensed acupuncture to make ends meet. She’s not entirely blameless for Yoon Do-joon’s condition, which helps explain her overreaching devotion to the suspect.

“I wrote the part of Mother specifically for Kim Hye-ja, who wanted to change her image as a typical loving mother and matriarch,” recalled Bong, whose last movie, The Host, was about an amphibious monster nurtured on pollutants carelessly discarded at a U.S. military base. “Her son was played by Won Bin, a heartthrob in Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia. He also wanted to change his image.

“In Korea, it’s rare for actors to accept such career-altering roles. These actors took them head-on, though.”

Police detectives, along with the expensive lawyer she hired to defend Do-joon, both advise Mother to cut her losses, by asking her son to plead guilty by reason of insanity and accept a prison term. Instead, she builds a separate case, based on hearsay evidence and gossip. Revealing much more about the story would spoil the many surprises and twists that occur during the course of her investigation. Suffice it to say, Mother and Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple were cut from two entirely different swaths of cloth, as was Bong’s narrative.

As settings for crime, Copenhagen and Stockholm aren’t in the same league as New Orleans, Johannesburg and Rio de Janeiro, although they have provided the backdrop for some wonderful espionage and psychological thrillers. One need only rent the films of Nicolas Winding Refn to see how much has changed in the land of Hans Christian Andersen and Pippi Longstocking.

The crimes in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo begin in the shiny corporate offices of Copenhagen and end on a picturesque island off Nyköping, in the Baltic Sea. A duped and disgraced big-city reporter, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), is hired by a wealthy industrialist to probe the long-ago disappearance of a cherished niece, who, while presumed dead, may be the person sending him flowers on his birthday.

The closets of the industrialist’s family members, who also have homes on the island, are filled with Nazi uniforms, implements of sexual torture and hunting gear. An aura of depravity fairly oozes from the cabins.

Even so, Blomkvist uses the tools of the modern investigative trade to get a grip on the case and make sense of his employer’s familial and corporate ties. He taps into the Internet, photo-analysis software, police files and newspaper archives to establish a pattern of disappearances and murders of young women, going back several decades.

Along the way, Blomkvist acquires a dogged research assistant, Lisbeth Salander. Her baggage adds a harrowing parallel storyline to what already was developing into an intriguing narrative. Apart from inspiring the movie’s title, the young woman is an obsessive computer hacker, with Asperger’s Syndrome and a special interest in Blomkvist. After Salander proves her worth to the reporter, we learn why she’s so fascinated by his case and the kidnap victims.

Noomi Rapace plays the intrepid Goth hacker, whose personal history of sexual abuse informs their investigation and her need to punish the murderers. When it comes to Salander’s motivations and defense mechanisms, at least, Oplev has left little to the imagination. After the man who handles her trust fund continues to demand sex for the money to which she’s entitled, Salander turns the table on him. Her revenge takes the form of rape so vicious it couldn’t possibly be replicated in the American remake now being planned. It also helps explains the original title of the source material: Men Who Hate Women.

“The book was 600 pages long and very technical in nature,” Oplev explained. “We boiled the first 100 down to a two-minute segment over the opening sequence. It established the public disgrace experienced by Blomkvist, when he lost his court case and was sentenced to a jail term.

“The rape scene was separate from the investigation, but it got the story of Lisbeth up and running. From there, we wanted Lisbeth and Mikael to have equal screen time.” Their common mission was fighting violence against women, he added, “but they came at it from opposite directions. Lisbeth was fighting Swedish society, while Mikael fought any injustice.”

After Larsson’s death, the books in his Millennium trilogy were published to international critical acclaim and huge commercial success. Because the writer didn’t leave a will, stipulating his intentions, largely estranged family members have collected his royalties. His longtime personal and professional partner had the presence of mind to hold on to his computer – and, presumably, several unpublished manuscripts – it isn’t certain if any new Larsson titles will become available anytime soon. Movies adapted from the two other Millennium books, however, have already been shot and released in parts of Europe, absent Oplev’s involvement.

While in Los Angeles to promote the movie, the filmmaker engaged in discussions with producers interested in his services. Unlike the deal he arranged with producers of Dragon, it isn’t likely he’ll get complete control over his next project.

“They’re all different … it’s too early to say which direction we’ll go,” Oplev says. “I can’t expect full control. I would hope that my Nordic traditions and sensibilities will be understood, however.”
Bong, whose movie was nominated for a Spirit award, is working on a sequel to The Host. No surprise there, as it became South Korea’s highest grossing film, selling 13 million tickets. It added another $2.2 million at the U.S. box office.

“Mother didn’t do that kind of business, but it sold three million tickets and made money,” Bong allowed. “Audiences had to think along with me in Mother … use their imaginations to fill the void. The Host was easier on the audience, as the images were more important than the dialogue.

“Still, the movie went beyond genre conventions, in that it asked what makes a monster … like the creatures in Japanese sci-fi/horror movies, made after the atomic bombs. Our monster’s crimes included kidnapping people and hiding them in caves along the river.”

Bong’s previous films included a segment in the highly impressionistic anthology, Tokyo!; Memories of Murder, in which city and country cops take different approaches to the investigation of serial murders; and Barking Dogs Never Bite, in which the abduction and murder of a yapping dog leads to a moral crisis.

Mother and Dragon are movies that only the most subtitle-phobic of audiences should fear. Otherwise, the mysteries are as good as any likely to be released in the English language this year.

– Gary Dretzka
March 19, 2010

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon