Night in Paradise
As a muscular and unwavering filmmaker, Park Hoon-jung often prefers a flair of operatic ultra-violence, and his new film, Night in Paradise, doesn’t exactly play against his strengths — this is, at heart, another long and blood-soaked tale of rival gangsters slaughtering each other by the dozens in a war to determine who gets to rule over the bones — but it doesn’t want to rely on them either. It’s often frustratingly straightforward, and its plot relies on a smart and fearsome young gangster’s failure to make sense of a mafia power grab that anyone who’s even seen a few movies about the criminal underworld should be able to see right through. Uhm Tae-goo stars as Park Tae-goo, the kind of swaggering enforcer who seems on track to become the boss of his organization in the not-too-distant future. Alas, Tae-goo has a terrible secret that complicates his chances of taking over Seoul: He has some empathy and cares about people. Specifically, his ailing half-sister and adorable niece. When both of them are killed in an ambush so awkwardly edited that you just know there’s more to the story, Tae-goo’s boss, silver-haired Mr. Yang (Park Ho-san), convinces his grief-stricken aide that the hit was put out by the head of the rival Bukseong clan. That nudge is enough to make Tae-goo snap on his enemies at a local spa as part of a killer pre-credit sequence that ends with our hero driving into the night stark naked. Vengeance in hand, Tae-goo is ordered to fly to idyllic Jeju Island and lie low for a while amid the palm trees, where he soon grows a bond with Jae-yeon (Jeon Yeo-been), the niece of a local gun smuggler.
Hovering somewhere between despondent and dour, Night in Paradise gradually thaws into a kind of numbed anti-romance as the doomed non-couple at its core drive around the island and stare into the middle distance. These characters are sunken into themselves to the point that only their most heightened attributes stick out above the surface; the stoic Jae-yeon is a supernaturally talented sharpshooter for reasons that go unexplained, while the docile Tae-goo is almost catatonic whenever people aren’t trying to kill him. There are moments in which their platonic bond is all the more interesting because of how little they take from each other, as Night in Paradise casually ambles towards the ideas that dying for someone is preferable to killing for oneself. But it’s only toward the end that the heroes of this sluggish movie get to do something besides take in the scenery and wait for the bad guys to show up.
Thankfully the bad guys do, and Park hasn’t lost any of his talent for blunt-force trauma. While a semi-realistic mass shooting in the third act is out of place at the end of a movie that vibes best on a more divertingly hard-boiled wavelength, the rest of the action here strikes just the right balance between pure genre pleasure and divine punishment, and it’s all too easy to appreciate Park’s unique set of skills in a movie that relies on them so infrequently. A gun battle in a barn is clear and kinetic in a way that seems beyond the capabilities of American cinema, while a chase sequence that follows Tae-goo halfway across the island finds Park taking his kinetic gangster squads out of the parking garages and onto the streets. That last detail may not align with a film that’s heavy with a half-awake at 4 AM type of energy even during its brightest moments, and that’s sort of the the problem. Often irksomely simple, Night in Paradise has its downcast, nocturnal pleasures yet gradually ambles into being translucent and nearly catatonic.
Night in Paradise is available to stream on Netflix
Productions don’t get much leaner than Oxygen, which is set in a single, coffin-sized location and has a cast list of three. Starring Mélanie Laurent as a woman who wakes up in a cryogenic pod with rapidly declining oxygen levels and absolutely no idea who or where she is, this Netflix thriller is ruthlessly lean to the point that it’s no surprise to see Alexandre Aja’s name in the credits. His last film, Crawl, was set in a basement full of alligators, and this time around he’s going even more confined, keeping the jolts coming nonetheless. Oxygen is also one of those films where knowing too much about it will indeed ruin the surprise. Suffice it to say that the “bioform” slowly remembering that her name is Dr. Elizabeth Hansen (Laurent) spends the film trapped with a A.I named M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric) that has the dry wit of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL-9000. Such a supercomputer, isn’t the only familiar thing about Oxygen: There are early shades of the Alien series and later shades of the Matrix trilogy. Meanwhile, the fractured memories that appear uninvited are of your typical “closeup on a hand gently stroking a lover’s shoulder” variety.
Oxygen separates itself in one important way. This is another one of those accidentally prescient films: Based on a script from 2016 by Christie LeBlanc that just so happens to include a global pandemic as a plot point. (The film was shot last year.) From there enters the third cast member, Malik Zidi, who appears in the series of aforementioned flashbacks that grow more coherent as Hansen frantically pieces together her life before the pod. The rest of Oxygen‘s just slightly too long runtime is taken up with conversations between Hansen and people on the outside, some of whom are there to help her and some of whom just say they are. All the while, her oxygen supply continually dwindles. As one might expect, much of the responsibility for keeping Oxygen compelling rests on Laurent, who runs through all the stages of grief as she thrashes around in her high-tech prison. It’s a genuinely impressive performance. Aside from splicing in the occasional shot of Laurent gulping for air under the red lights and a blaring soundtrack, however, Oxygen is lighter on shock value when compared to much of Aja’s past work. That’s not to say that there aren’t pulpy moments, though, but it’s every time that Oxygen pivots from tight suspense into high-minded sci-fi that it feels like the air has left the room. At times taut to a fault, Oxygen can be claustrophobically anxious if still never leaving you breathless.
Oxygen is available to stream on Netflix