Wednesday, July 23, 2008

PUZZLE (2006) d. Tae-kyung Kim

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Maybe it begins it’s when you first sneak a cookie or two out of the jar on the kitchen counter without Mom or Dad knowing. Possibly it begins when we first creep back into the house from a date or a party after being out later than we’d promised. For whatever reason, people love “heist” movies, and they continue to be one of the most consistently popular film sub-genres and have been so since the earliest days of “moving pictures”. Perhaps it is because heist flicks can be glamorous and exciting, but it is more likely that they call to the naughty side of our nature, that while submerged by ethical standards or values still lies unconquered just beneath the civilized surface. In a heist film, characters do things we’d love to try ourselves, but realize either can’t be done or we won’t do for fear of getting caught. The funny thing about the heist flick is that they don’t always turn out the way you want, think they might or should. There are heists that end on a very happy note like TOPKAPI (1964) or end on a sour note like POINT BLANK (1967). Either way, heist movies always include twists and turns, double crossing and dirty dealing and there is action and armed conflict one way or another. PUZZLE is a worthy addition to this well traveled but always entertaining canon of films and even though it borrows heavily from predecessors, one in particular, it does so with a sense of style, reverence and dexterity, just as a jewel thief would lift a necklace from a store case.

PUZZLE is the story of four young men and an older gentleman, brought together by an unknown figure to execute a daring, daylight bank raid. Hwan organizes the talents and trains the skills of Ryu, Noh, Kyu and Jung, doing everything in his power and experience to get them to work as a team, despite the fact that they don’t know each other. It is after the successful heist, when they arrange to meet Hwan at an abandoned factory that things begin to unravel. Distrust begins to flare, tempers fray, dislike expands to enmity and violence erupts. In the end, no one gets what they wanted from the operation, except the shadowy someone who started the ball rolling.

It doesn’t take long for it to be very obvious that PUZZLE is an homage to RESERVOIR DOGS and owes a great deal of its inspiration, in regards to the general concept and basic underpinnings of its story, to Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut. PUZZLE’s director Tae-kyung Kim even admits his admiration for RESERVOIR DOGS in the bonus features, but he borrows without thievery and pays deep respect to “his favorite film” by creating a structure that is told in flashbacks, creating a somewhat non-linear structure, but has stylistic elements that mirror other heist films too. The story starts out with an attractiveness and glamor that is reminiscent of OCEAN’S ELEVEN, all the while moving to the beat of its own drummer. The carefully crafted convolutions of the story have a feel like LAYER CAKE, where you know what the outcome is bound to be, but there is just enough of a circuitous path that it isn’t totally predictable. It is the descent into darkness and the disintegration of success due to mistrust and emotional instability that, while very reminiscent of RESERVOIR DOGS, also calls to mind some of the downward spiral of the characters in TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Instead of uniting against an obvious but still unknown threat from the outside, the characters in PUZZLE turn on each other until the ending is just as somber and misery-laden as KING LEAR. The sinister puppet-master of PUZZLE is not glaringly evident by the end, but by careful counting of the characters, just as you would count cards in a poker game, there is only one person that it could be, and the unmasking is satisfying.

PUZZLE is not a thrill ride like ENTRAPMENT and it doesn’t have the tight pacing or star-power allure of OCEAN’S ELEVEN, but it is entertaining and compelling. The increasingly gloomy atmosphere and the intensifying tautness of the character’s nervous states are infectious, as it becomes increasingly apparent how badly the “job” is going to turn out. Tying the tales of each character together are sinister figures in their flashbacks that are woven into the story in such a way that you can’t help thinking they are clearly the movers behind the melodrama, but they are pawns in a simpler, more vengeful game. PUZZLE looks very good and is quite an achievement when you learn in the extras that a fair amount of the photography is done with hand-held cameras. Unlike Hollywood directors of photography, who strap their hand-helds to the backs of howler monkeys and then turn theme loose, in PUZZLE, the hand-held camera was used to create clear, powerful imagery and even more experimental set of shots when blended with those of static cameras and then edited with thought and creativity. This is one of the characteristics of PUZZLE that sets it apart from RESERVOIR DOGS. In addition to its imagery, the musical score of PUZZLE is quite appealing and fascinating. Each character has his own “theme”, the vast majority or which are inspired by classical or orchestral music, giving PUZZLE both a more stately air as well as a more serious feel, deepening to ominous as the narrative descends the steps towards disaster. The principal actors’ performances are an excellent mix of understated, barely restrained and highly explosive, creating contrast and tension that is palpable throughout the film. There are some moments where the pacing is a little uneven, and some of the flashbacks have a slightly jarring quality to them, but like a good stock option, it all pays off in the end as the action escalates over the last one-third of the film and the violence becomes more brutal and bloody.

PUZZLE has a surprisingly strong set of bonus features. There is a 15 minute “Actors Interviews” segment where all five principal performers relate their thoughts on this project, their characters and how they became involved. What makes these interviews a little out of the ordinary is that most of the “clips” edited with their interview shots are not from the film, but are mini-features about the backgrounds and natures of each character. Following the “interviews section” is a 15 ½ minute “Behind the Scenes” featurette focusing on the director and the director of photography’s thoughts on PUZZLE, their inspirations, motivations and recollections of the production process, including how seeing the old factory helped to germinate the idea for the narrative in the sub-conscious of Tae-kyung Kim. Finally, there is a 12 minute “Making of the Music Score”, which may be the most compelling of the three offerings. The thoughts of the composer are carefully presented so that a viewer can really explore the creative and intellectual process of scoring a film like PUZZLE. One of the great strengths of the dvd releases of CJ Entertainment is that, large or small, there is always something on their discs that leads you to a deeper understanding of Korean cinema and how it is made.

There have been a lot of heist films over the past 70 years, but not many of them are Asian and even fewer from South Korea. Mingling the best ideas of The West with the uniquely captivating nature of Asian film making is one of the reasons PUZZLE is an enjoyable viewing experience. For those who are looking for bullet-ridden bombast akin to a classic Hong Kong John Woo film, they might be disappointed, for PUZZLE is a bit more contemplative. It isn’t an art film or an avant-garde experiment either. PUZZLE cobbles together some fine ideas and concepts of films that preceded it, then uses some inventive initiatives of its own and spins them into a story that will delight anyone who is a connoisseur of heist movies.

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