Sex, Lies and Ultraviolence

Restaurant documentary "Sorry We're Closed," a 20th anniversary restoration of "Oldboy," and the stockbroker melodrama "Trader."

In this 24/7-media environ of ours, it is annoying when someone passes a widely-shared, widely-memed, widely-debated conviction off as their own. Even if you share the conviction, the person speaking to you might be so unduly pleased with themselves that you may be tempted to reexamine your own ideas, if nothing else out of spite. You may want to say something to this person along the lines of “yeah, I read the Post and the Times and Twitter or whatever we’re calling it now too.” Peter Ferriero’s “Sorry We’re Closed” is 77 minutes of this sort of conversation.

Following chef Elizabeth Falkner as she talks to elite restauranteurs, mostly on the East and West coasts, this docu-essay intends to elucidate the effect of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry. Wonderful topic, but Ferriero and Falkner never even make it to first gear. Watching “Sorry We’re Closed,” it may surprise you to learn that having to close your dream restaurant, which you spent years and millions of dollars trying to realize, “sucks.” You may reel when you hear, concerning this country’s racism and easy division by characters like Donald Trump, that we need “some deep therapy.” Falkner has the courage to say that there’s “beauty in the diversity of everything. People, tomatoes, it’s all good.” There’s little detail to savor here amongst the platitudes.

Chefs talk of having to change their game plans in the wake of the pandemic, and, every once in a while, Ferriero and Falkner bother to extract some semblance of elaboration. One restaurant fashioned highly accomplished bento boxes, which the camera allows us to appreciate. The mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic is embodied by a chef who worked and drank himself into psychiatric crisis. But Ferriero and Falkner don’t develop even these promising threads. They have a very basic set of talking points that they are looking to sell, and they are not open to any textures that might complicate their sermons. (At the film’s ludicrous nadir, Ferriero and Falkner seem to imply that business owners were happy to fear the trashing of their buildings during the George Floyd protests, if it served a higher purpose. Knowing business owners, I beg to differ.)

One subject that is explored to the point of exhaustion is that of Falkner’s virtuousness. Relatively long scenes find her watching Trump’s absurd, demoralizing speeches and reacting in disbelief. There’s nothing wrong with disbelief, but these moments are embarrassingly self-congratulatory, designed to let the viewer know that she is on the right “team.” Falkner and her glib banalities become insufferable. And for a production made by insiders, “Sorry We’re Closed” has little feeling for the electric, gnarly, disreputable lunacy of the restaurant industry. As overwrought as it may be, that Hulu show “The Bear” comes much closer to the volatility of restaurant life, especially in the wake of COVID-19. “Sorry We’re Closed” is dull and saintly and fake—an act of networking.

If you’re looking for an actual movie in these dog days, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 shocker “Oldboy” is back in theaters for its 20th anniversary, and outfitted in a new restoration. It looks and sounds smashing, which is important because Park is the most dazzling of the South Korean stylists whose feverishly violent imports flourished in American arthouses in the early aughts. If you’ve never seen one of his movies—which also include “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, “The Handmaiden,” and last year’s “Decision to Leave”—think a more playful David Fincher. Park likes big, grabby images, rich in bright lurid colors and elaborate camera gymnastics. The decadent pleasure of his aesthetic contrasts with, or some might say undermines, the brutality of his films’ subject matter. Is “Oldboy” a deeply ironic, tragic revenge yarn about the evils of a patriarchal system, or is it a genre film spiced up with high-brow allusions by an unusually talented artist?

I vote the latter, as “Oldboy” benefits from being taken less seriously. It is a propulsive film— loaded to the brim with perverse touches—that struggles in an ongoing cage match with a plot that’s too absurd and complicated by more than half. This is an ongoing Park problem, as he has a taste for knotty narratives that wear themselves out. He’s great with images and actors—if only he’d let these qualities breathe a bit.

Dae-su Oh (Choi Min-sik), a drunken, chubby, loutish schlub, is kidnapped outside of a police station and held in a cell that resembles a cheap motel room—for 15 years. The details of his imprisonment are wonderfully eerie. He’s fed the same Chinese dumplings every day. He’s dosed with sleeping gas when it’s time for a haircut, or for when he needs to be saved from an occasional suicide attempt. He’s allowed TV, which gives him a warped view of the evolving global landscape in the wake of Sept. 11. (Spike Lee’s underrated American remake, from 2013, went further with this idea, bringing in a little of Lee’s “25th Hour” to compliment the revenge shenanigans.)

This imprisonment drives Dae-su Oh crazy, but also transforms him into a stud—a leaner, more driven and disciplined wolf who, upon his random release, is dead-set on revenge. Yes, Park has the effrontery, and the cheekiness, to make violation and trauma seem sexy, and Choi sells this shift with unnerving confidence. A reference to “Frankenstein” isn’t careless, as Park has molded “Oldboy” into a nontraditional monster movie, with Dae-su Oh as a rampaging beast looking to his kidnapper, or “creator,” for rationale. Think of what it takes to imprison someone for 15 years. Oh, and Dae-su Oh was framed for his wife’s murder, and he has a daughter who’s now an adult and has gone off somewhere.

The solution suggests Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” squared, involving twin violations of women perpetuated by men looking to even the score with other men. The explanation takes forever to arrive, but it’s worth waiting for. It’s nasty and gritty and works its way into your bloodstream, literalizing the film’s incestuous, self-cannibalizing metaphors. “Oldboy” is flawed yet legitimately nuts, a memorable work of pop-sleaze protest art.

Corey Stanton’s “Trader” is also a go-for-broke stunt that’s dumb and impressive in roughly equal measure. It takes ingenuity to stage a stockbroker melodrama in one location, with one onscreen character, and somehow capture all the aggression and reversals of fortune that tend to make these things sing. An unnamed woman (Kimberly-Sue Murray), who appears to be squatting in the basement of a city apartment building, perpetuates credit card scams over burner phones. Then she gets a taste for online stock trading, devising various alter egos in order to arouse, flatter, or cajole people into giving her what she wants. Obsessive and amoral, usually high to the gills on various uppers, including cocaine, this woman becomes a master of stock manipulation in a month or so, her crimes revealing her in short order to be a legitimate monster.

Ever notice how much Wall Street movies, even when they think they’re pure of heart, sexualize money? Stanton does that very knowingly, very pointedly. This woman, who values nothing apart from domination, is essentially having her version of sex in front of us for 84 trim, tart minutes. We’re watching a psychopath find her medium, and the relentlessness of the film’s tunnel vision is chilling and absorbing. Certain flourishes exude a try-hard vibe in the tradition of rising filmmakers, particularly dream sequences that strain for surreal irony, but Stanton generally keeps the pressure cooker humming. He’s pulled off a hell of a trick, bridging the narcissism of Wall Street movies with that of the self-cocooned online culture that seems to be swallowing up many of our lives.

“Sorry We’re Closed” and “Trader” are available to rent on various streamers. The restored “Oldboy” is now playing at Movieland at Boulevard Square.


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