Saturday, June 7, 2008

Movie Review: R-Point (2004)

Rob and I are finally back and rested (mostly) from The House Between 3.0, and ready to plow headlong into this summer’s exciting batch of Fantasmos. Our big Blade Runner extravaganza is just a few short weeks away, and we hope to have confirmation of a special guest soon! And then comes what could be the ultimate Fantasmo in July . . .

But in the meantime, plenty to talk about. During my recuperation from shooting THB I’ve had a chance to catch up on movie watching, and have been fortunate to unearth a few gems. The first one was a Korean horror film from 2004 called R-Point. The creepy cover art for the film had drawn my eye on several occasions, but I had passed largely due to an overload of Asian horror in recent years. While I enjoyed The Ring and a few others, most films from this category have struck me as undistinguished retreads of what came before. I guess it’s a similar phenomenon to the sort of thing we experience in the U.S. Find a successful formula and milk it for all it’s worth (e.g. the slasher genre). And don’t even get me started on the American remakes of the J-horror retreads! Good grief! So it was with some trepidation that I approached R-Point, but I’m happy to report it’s a mostly original winner.

Right out of the gate R-Point does something I love by deftly splicing together two popular genres: war and horror. For me this is always an intriguing premise, as you essentially have a film of one type (war/military) that progresses along its familiar path, only to be sidelined into unfamiliar territory . . . the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of genre films if you will. Theoretically if you enjoy both scenarios, you’ll have the best of all possible worlds. It doesn’t always work (e.g. The Supernaturals), but when it does (e.g. Aliens) it can be pretty amazing. R-Point succeeds on both fronts, and its setup immediately recalls films such as the original Alien and Event Horizon. Set during the Vietnam War, a South Korean army base begins receiving radio communications from a patrol team that has been missing for six months. The transmission is requesting a rescue team be sent to get them out, but the message is garbled and the voice is distant and a tad unsettling. A burned out squad leader (think Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now) is tapped to lead a group of volunteers into the region (known as R-Point) where the team went missing, to bring back any survivors. Needless to say, things don’t go at all as planned.

After the initial business with the transmission, the film goes through the entertaining paces of establishing the personalities of the team as they progress toward R-Point. For whatever reason this is something I always enjoy in war films from the The Dirty Dozen to Full Metal Jacket, as you tend to get a potpourri of colorful characters. R-Point is no exception to this rule, as every soldier is given an identity and in many cases a particular detail that provides motivation (e.g. one soldier wants to get home in order to take his family to the National Zoo). Most importantly, the film does a fantastic job with pacing. The initial “getting to know the characters” period moves along at a good clip, and they reach R-Point before the intro overstays its welcome. There’s of course a little bit of an ominous overtone indicating that things are a little off, but generally it is takes a backseat to the war film dynamic.

Once the team reaches R-Point, the transition from war film to ghost story is accomplished with admirable grace. Upon entering the jungle the team finds itself in a firefight that would be right at home in Platoon. This thrusts the viewer into a horror of war type scenario, while also setting a trap for the team. The sequence also establishes a female innocent who comes to play an important role throughout the film. The scene works very well, but the introduction of the girl is the closest R-Point comes to a misstep. The ghostly young lady cliché is rather tired (was even by 2004), but thankfully it isn’t overused. Following the battle the team comes to a marker which essentially states that anyone with blood on their hands will never return from R-Point. Naturally this warning goes unheeded and the group proceeds to make camp, much to the detriment of their future prospects for survival. After a tense but mostly uneventful night, the group discovers what is perhaps the creepiest abandoned hospital in the history of cinema in a wide open field. Thinking indoor accommodations to be preferable, they unwisely make this the base of operations from which to conduct their search. And then the ghostly goings on begin in earnest.

As with its depiction of the war film plotting, R-Point establishes a pace for its horror section that is remarkably well conceived. It never devolves into relying on cheap jumps or gory set pieces, but instead focuses on mood. The film spends a good deal of time exploring lonely hospital corridors, overgrown fields, and dense jungles. We move through these areas with the soldiers, experiencing what they see and feel during their search. Wrongly handled this sort of approach could become boring, but R-Point punctuates the periods of exploration with revelations at just the right moments to avoid this potential pitfall. While I absolutely love shocker films, atmospheric creepfests tend to be my favorites . . . and R-Point ranks with the best of them. Take a couple of examples (spoilers ahead):

*One of the soldiers finds himself separated from his companions while out searching for the lost team. He frantically begins calling out and wandering around an open field of high grass. He then comes up behind what appears to be his team moving forward through the grass. He calls out to them but receives no answer. They then duck down into the grass and seemingly disappear leaving him alone again. Goosebump city.

*The squad leader makes a call back to base to report that one of the team has gone missing, only to receive word that the soldier was never part of their group. In fact, the soldier was a member of the original team they have been sent to look for. When the group begins to survey their collective memory, they realize that indeed the solider was not with them at the outset of their mission, and that no one can remember him being present before their arrival at the beach entry of R-Point.

These sorts of moments are plentiful, and never cease to be effective. What’s even more impressive is that the majority of the film takes place in broad daylight in open areas. Most horror films rely on claustrophobic and/or nighttime settings because it’s easier to hide the threat in the shadows. Consequently, well-lit areas that offer terrific visibility are seldom to be found in the genre. To be fair this is completely understandable, but you have to give extra credit to films that manage to pull this off (e.g. Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Granted the hospital plays an important role, and there are several night sequences, but they do not comprise the bulk of the film. It’s worth mentioning that when they do make an appearance, they are just as fantastic as the other sequences. The hospital segments in particular remind one of some of the better haunted house films out there.

The place where R-Point falls somewhat short is in its final 10 minutes. After all the build-up, its resolution tends to meander into the realm of standard J-horror. It uses the creepy girl imagery we’re all so familiar with, and doesn’t satisfactorily provide answers to all the questions raised. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this (a little mystery is fine), but if you’re going to start hitting me with tired genre conventions you’d better make up for it with either a) outstanding visuals or b) answers to the questions raised for the first 90 minutes. Unfortunately R-Point doesn’t manage either. Thankfully, it doesn’t embarrass itself to the extent that it brings down all the greatness that has come before. And there is a nice bit with a blind soldier left alone after a climactic confrontation. But its weakness in the end keeps it hovering at the periphery of classic status.

So, if you’re looking for a great genre blender that is genuinely creepy, you’re likely to really enjoy R-Point. Yeah, it does fall back a little on J-horror staples, but not nearly enough to detract from its successes. Sure beats the drudgery of The Ring 4, One Missed Call 3, The Eye 6, The Grudge 4.5, etc., etc.In the next few days I’ll have up a review of an incredible low-rent, non-Seagal action film, Dolph Lundgren in John Woo’s Blackjack (sneak preview: this movie was awesome . . . and I’m no big fan of John Woo)!

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