Bad things happen to bad people in Monster’s Ball, but then those bad people—well, the ones who survive—become good. No, Marc Forster’s film is not a fable of religious transcendence, although it does have a hushed deliberateness that suggests trailer-park Bresson. It’s more one of those Faulknerian decline-of-the-Southern-white-guy parables, but with that genre’s explosiveness checked by a dip into the deep freeze of international-art-cinema reticence.
Like many Faulkner novels, Milo Addica and Will Rokos’ script features a decadent clan and a breakaway son. Easygoing Sonny (Heath Ledger) and his quietly bristling father, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), are prison guards, as was Hank’s cranky, ailing, now-retired father, Buck (Peter Boyle). Buck and Hank call African-Americans “porch monkeys,” wistfully recall when “they knew their place,” and run dark-skinned neighbors (one of them played by Mos Def) off their property with a shotgun. Sonny has black friends, though—which is just one reason Hank considers him “weak.”
The execution of murderer Lawrence Musgrove (Sean not-“Puffy” Combs) is approaching, but Sonny just can’t get into the mood. (A “monster’s ball,” we’re told, is the party the guards throw to mark a death-row denouement.) He insists on being cordial to the condemned man, much to Hank’s disgust. After Lawrence’s burned-out wife, Leticia (Halle Berry), and obese, unhappy child, Tyrell (Coronji Calhoun), make their last visit, Hank refuses to allow Lawrence the final phone call the convict promised his son. And when Sonny breaks down as he and his dad are escorting a freshly diapered Lawrence to the electric chair, Hank is furious. At home later, father and son quarrel, and the younger man pulls out a pistol. Rather than shoot Hank, however, Sonny turns the gun on himself. Two down, two to go.
A long-incarcerated husband is not good for family finances, so Leticia is about to lose her house, her job, and her car when she finds an unexpected benefactor: Hank. Although he’s stunningly brusque at Sonny’s funeral, the man has begun to mellow. He quits his job, and he can’t even bring himself to screw the local hooker—from the rear, to emphasize his impersonal approach to human relations—after she mentions Sonny, a former client. When Hank uncharacteristically stops to help Leticia and Tyrell after the boy is injured, Leticia turns to Hank for comfort and protection. The former cold-hearted bigot is so transfigured that he even switches sexual positions.
The Swiss-born Forster’s first widely distributed feature, Monster’s Ball is one of no fewer than four current films that consider the aftermath of a child’s death. In the Bedroom and Lantana temper bereavement drama with genre conventions, whereas the upcoming The Son’s Room—the most honest of the lot—searches for release in the everyday. Initially, Monster’s Ball might seem the darkest of the quartet: Lawrence and Sonny aren’t the only people who will vanish from Hank and Leticia’s lives. But when each of the other human impediments to the couple’s unlikely romance is removed, one way or another, the effect becomes more comic than grim. All of the lovers’ relatives might as well be dead men walking.
Though the movie’s first half proceeds from the Solondzian premise that unpleasantness is inherently profound, the second part reaches for an unearned redemption. The performers—including Combs—hit their roles’ single notes flawlessly, but when Monster’s Ball changes its tune, the remaining characters can’t shift with it; the laconic script just doesn’t provide the ingredients for such a switch.
Visually, the film’s trademark is the isolating two-shot, with one of the characters out of focus. The film’s final shot changes the strategy, but not the mood. Forster is not yet the sort of director who can produce a catharsis simply by shifting the camera.
The border between South and North Korea is much more of a flash point than any location where the Reagan administration imagined itself to be facing down the Soviets, but that doesn’t make the Korean us-vs.-them thriller Shiri any more persuasive than such paranoid ’80s-era fantasias as Red Dawn. Writer-director Kang Je-gyu’s 1999 movie became the biggest hit in Korean box-office history, perhaps because it brought Hollywood-style technique to a local political issue that had been a taboo subject for Korean filmmakers. For moviegoers who live closer to L.A. than Pyongyang, however, Shiri is not such a novelty.
The action begins in 1992 in a North Korean military-training camp, where troops prove their ruthlessness on real-life victims. (The identity of these sacrificial humans is not addressed.) The star recruit is a woman, Hee (Park Eun-sook), who can sever a carotid artery with a single, perfectly placed shot. Having aced the course, Hee burns her family photos and heads south. Six years later, Hee is Private Enemy No. 1 for South Korean secret agents Ryu (Han Suk-gyu) and Lee (Song Kang-ho). They still have time for some fun, though, including dinner at Bennigan’s and a Korean-language production of Guys and Dolls with Ryu’s new girlfriend, Hyun (New York-bred Kim Yun-jin), who runs a tropical-fish store.
“Shiri” is, in fact, a kind of fish, one that instinctually travels upstream to spawn. Upstream in this case means North Korea, and the implication is that the boundary that separates the two Koreas is unnatural. But on what terms should the countries reunite? For Hee’s fellow supervillain Park (Choi Min-sik), who is enraged by the affluence of hi-tech, Americanized South Korea at a time when some starving Northerners have turned to cannibalism, reunification can come only after the destruction of the South. He and his cohorts steal a new superexplosive and plan to destroy a stadium while a symbolically fraught North-South soccer match is under way. Ryu and Lee must stop him while also determining how information is leaking from their top-secret offices—and where Hee is. People who have seen a few American thrillers won’t wonder long about the latter mystery.
Shiri is reportedly one of the few Korean movies to draw crowds elsewhere in Asia, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though Kang has modeled the crowd scenes and mass-destruction effects on Hollywood spectaculars, the man-to-man action is very much in the Hong Kong mode, with lots of circling camera moves and not one but three John Woo-style multigun standoffs. Yet the film doesn’t have the monomaniacal intensity of the liveliest HK action flicks, nor the tragic dimension of the most profound ones. Shiri is not badly done, but its principal attraction is its ersatz politics, which will seem anything but fresh to observers of what passes for ideological conflict in mainstream American movies. CP