At The Movies

Asian tales of corruption and deceit

The Kingmaker and Fukushima 50 depict depraved leaders, while every character is rotten in Beasts Clawing At Straws

Call them the antagonists, the evil foils, the baddies, the bullet catchers. But without a character to fear or hate, movies lose emotional weight. Villains, too often the most underdeveloped characters, come alive in films released this week.

In the opening scenes of the documentary The Kingmaker (PG13, 101 minutes, opens today at The Projector, 4.5 stars), Mrs Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, hands out cash to the beggars of Manila, clucking with concern.

That act of minor munificence - when contrasted with the billions she and her late husband Ferdinand Marcos plundered from the treasury and thereby helping create beggars - is infuriating. But it signals this is a work that is not afraid to take sides.

This fascinating character study of the dowager, who is still active in politics personally and through her son Bongbong (Ferdinand Marcos Jr), covers her past as a beauty queen from the provinces, her husband's rise to power and her time as first lady in the 1960s to the 1980s, when she sought to make Malacanang Palace - the presidential residence - a centre of culture and glamour.

That fantasy of a Kennedy-style Camelot came crashing down when People Power protesters stormed the palace, revealing to news cameras her infamous shoe collection.

With almost every word she speaks, the self-proclaimed "mother of her people" revises history, gaslights and claims victimhood.

Director Lauren Greenfield, an American, then cuts to an image or interview that tells the opposite story, showing her to be a liar.

Sadly, this tactic only brings to mind a depressing current reality: In a nation with a leader who boasts about making it great again, the comforting lie, once uttered, cannot be reined in with the truth, and Mrs Marcos seems to know it.

Don't let the strange title of South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing At Straws (NC16, 108 minutes, opens today at The Projector, 4 stars) put you off. This work, adapted from the 2011 Japanese novel of the same name, is as slick and accomplished as they come.

It belongs to the canon of noirish works in which everyone is rotten and the only difference is by how much.

In a series of chapters that deal with different timelines and characters, eight people become involved with a bag of money. As their relationships with one another become clearer, events get bloodier.

Mrs Imelda Marcos (left), former first lady of the Philippines, in the documentary The Kingmaker. (Far left) South Korean actress Shin Hyun-bin in Beasts Clawing At Straws. (Left) Fukushima 50 celebrates employees at the centre of the Fukushima Daiic
Mrs Imelda Marcos (above), former first lady of the Philippines, in the documentary The Kingmaker. PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

South Korean thrillers can be just as violent as Western ones, but they also go where Hollywood fears to tread, such as in scenes showing men beating and torturing women. They can be discomfiting to watch, but writer-director Kim Yong-hoon, making his feature debut, intends to make a point about the world in which his characters live. The realistic cruelty, extravagant violence and graphic novel-style black humour come together seamlessly.

The baddies in the reality-based disaster movie Fukushima 50 (PG, 122 minutes, opens today, 2.5 stars) are the bosses of the power company in charge of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which was rocked by explosions following the March 2011 tsunami that struck eastern Japan.

These executives, intent on saving their reputations, underplayed risks and issued confusing, contradictory instructions during the repair phase of the operation.

Mrs Imelda Marcos (left), former first lady of the Philippines, in the documentary The Kingmaker. (Far left) South Korean actress Shin Hyun-bin in Beasts Clawing At Straws. (Left) Fukushima 50 celebrates employees at the centre of the Fukushima Daiic
(Above) South Korean actress Shin Hyun-bin in Beasts Clawing At Straws. PHOTO: THE PROJECTOR

The suits from Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company, given a litigation-proof name in the movie) are the most interesting part of the film, but are left unexplored as characters. Instead, as the title suggests, this work celebrates the 50 or so lower-level men and women who remained at their posts when most would have fled.

So what could have been an interesting look at the anatomy of a disaster becomes a repetitive, pantomime-like reenactment of bravery, with employees volunteering for ever more hazardous jobs.

The extravagant acting and lack of psychological insight are wearying, proving that disaster films are best attempted decades after the event, safely out of the reach of lawyers or the need to burnish one aspect at the expense of others.

Mrs Imelda Marcos (left), former first lady of the Philippines, in the documentary The Kingmaker. (Far left) South Korean actress Shin Hyun-bin in Beasts Clawing At Straws. (Left) Fukushima 50 celebrates employees at the centre of the Fukushima Daiic
(Above) Fukushima 50 celebrates employees at the centre of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. PHOTO: ENCORE FILMS

Other films opening this week but not reviewed include Force Of Nature (NC16, 93 minutes, opens today), in which an ex-cop (Mel Gibson), his daughter (Kate Bosworth) and another cop, fallen from grace (Emile Hirsch), must foil robbers attempting a heist in their building during a hurricane.

In the thriller Unhinged (NC16, 93 minutes, opens today), single mother Rachel (Caren Pistorius) has a scary but all too common exchange of words with another driver at a stop sign. That driver, Tom (Russell Crowe), as the movie's title suggests, has issues with women and reacts violently.

Radioactive (NC16, 110 minutes, opens today) from Iranian-French director Marjane Satrapi (the celebrated animation work Persepolis, 2007) stars Rosamund Pike as scientist Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist who discovered radioactivity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2020, with the headline 'Asian tales of corruption and deceit'. Print Edition | Subscribe