dir. Kim Jee-woon
and Yim Pil-sung
“A Brave New World” ***
“Heavenly Creature” ****
“Happy Birthday” **
The omnibus film, the portmanteau if you will, or, if you're not fond of a cool monicker for this interesting genre, the anthology film, can be a mixed blessing as it's comprised of several short stories linked by theme and for a variety of reasons, not all of them are going to be as good as some, while others can be downright dreadful.
Seeing short films - one after another - can often be downright exhausting. This is always a problem at film festivals that present short film programs or, for that matter, short film festivals period. You watch a film. Let's say it's terrific. It runs an intense 15 or so minutes. As soon as it ends, no matter how thematically linked the overall program is, you need to reboot yourself and get into a whole new headspace for a whole new story. Sometimes, you see a short and it's so damn good that anything that follows it is, even if it's genuinely good also, can actually pale in comparison. It's the tough-act-to-follow syndrome. Shorts worked in the old days of film exhibition because there was always a variety of programming - two feature films, a short "drama", a short "musical", a cartoon, a newsreel and, of course, previews of coming attraction. These days, a perfect place for one short is just before a feature and ideally, shorts - in and of themselves - are best viewed with breaks between theml
Watching shorts within the context of a feature is just as difficult, if not more so. When you watch a feature, there's the expectation of following one set of characters through one primary narrative thread, but within an omnibus feature, its makers have to construct an overall arc with several separate stories.
The best features of this variety tend to be linked with a wraparound story. A simple example is the 70s Amicus production of Asylum. Directed by the famous cinematographer Roy Ward Baker, the story begins with a young psychiatrist being interviewed for a job in an asylum. He's given a test - interview several inmates and render a series of diagnoses. He visits each inmate and they each have a horrific story to tell. Through the film, we follow the psychiatrist. What will he discover? Will he get the job? Or, will this job interview unexpectedly culminate in something as horrific as the tales told to him. Along with several films made during this period, it's a corker of a tale and one fine example of how an omnibus film should work.
One of the best omnibus items is the classic 1945 Dead of Night. The whole picture is wonderful, BUT, one story involving a ventriloquist and his dummy is so brilliant, so expertly performed by Michael Redgrave, one leaves the theatre thinking only about the one story. Everything else, admittedly fine, falls by the wayside.
Thematic omnibus films are much trickier to pull off and frankly, I don't think any of them work perfectly. Cristian Mungiu's Tales from the Golden Age works best in recent memory as it's tied into a specific historical period and we get to experience a number of recurring incidents and character types within the context of the whole. Mungiu also crafts the tales to provide an overall arc.
The new Korean film Doomsday Book is a thematic omnibus film in the science fiction genre. Focusing upon apocalyptic visions, it's a very mixed bag since it begins with a solid story, dovetails into a genuinely great story and ends with a mildly engaging, but in comparison to the middle story, the feature's crowning glory is anything but.
All this said, the film is worth seeing. The first story, “A Brave New World”, is a darkly humorous and terrifying tale of a zombie epidemic. We follow a central character, a sort of nebbish type who's browbeaten by his domineering mother and his search for love. He unwittingly is responsible for a deadly virus and we chart its growth along with his own tale of emancipation and finding love. It's an entertaining bauble and it sets us up for what we believe will be a terrific overall experience.
The second tale, “Heavenly Creature”, is so powerful, so emotional and so profoundly moving, that the first film is almost erased from our memory banks. It's a simple evocative tale of a robot that develops feelings. We chart the robot's journey to a high form of spiritual enlightenment and the eventual distrust amongst extremists that such a "machine" will be a threat to humanity.
The final tale, “Happy Birthday” is a chaotic, stylistic mess about a family sniping at each other in a fallout shelter during armageddon. It's overwrought and not especially funny. Most of all, it's positioning at the end of the portmanteau is a big disappointment as it comes close to tainting the sublime qualities of the middle tale.
I suspect, on the whole, Doomsday Book might - even with this disappointing final story - have worked so much better with a solid wraparound story instead of placing so much faith in theme to tie it together.
Once the film hits DVD, I highly suggest turning the player off just after the middle tale. Better yet, though the first story is not without merit, you might be better off making use of the menu screen to select the first two stories and watch them, if possible, as separate entities.
Speaking of shorts, Doomsday Book during its TADFF 2012 presentation was preceded by Frost, a fine Canadian short drama directed by Jeremy Ball that expertly told a haunting, mysterious tale against the backdrop of Canada's northern aboriginal peoples. This story of a young woman confronting a terrifying spiritual presence linked to her ancestry had enough of a subtle apocalyptic subtext as well as narrative elements dealing with both quest and familial acceptance that made it fit perfectly into the Doomsday Book omnibus. I should have left after “Heavenly Creature”. In retrospect, Ball's short and the first two shorts in Doomsday Book made for an excellent feature film.
"Doomsday Book" screened as part of the Toronto After Dark Film Festival (TADFF 2012). For further info, feel free to visit the festival's website HERE.