Saturday, June 07, 2008

Black Book (Zwartboek)

Officers in Action

I guess the most obvious comparison this movie will go up against, is Lee Ang's Lust, Caution. Both are set during WWII in lands under Axis power occupation, and both involve using the adage of Generals having to stumble over the lure of beauties. This strategy is quite basic in fact and execution, and both movies involve having an ingenue infiltrate their enemy's territory by getting up close and very personal with the respective officers in command, taking a little more than the spreading of limbs to pander to the lusts of men. Even though I had enjoyed Lust, Caution, I would have to say that Black Book notches a rung above it, simply because of it more superior production values, and a storyline a tad more complex and intriguing, that makes the Lee Ang movie look like a walk in the park.

Granted that Lust, Caution involves a story on a more intimate level between two lovers, coupled with the more explicit and widely talked about sexual gymnastics between the leads, Black Book has a more end-to-end feel about wartime espionage in general, with various elements like intelligence gathering, gung-ho raids, assassination and capture, tactics associated these days with terrorist elements and the much used association with freedom fighters all rolled into one coherent story, and keeps you guessing almost all the way with its spy vs spy plotting and counterplotting, double, triple timing and the poisoning of minds. For its ability to do just that, this is one WWII espionage movie I'll be recommending for quite a while.

Set in 1944 Netherlands near the end of WWII, we see how Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jew, had to take refuge on the move to avoid capture by the Nazis. Being reunited with her family in their flight from Holland, their escape boat got ambushed by enemy soldiers, and needless to say who had survived the ordeal. Using a new look and new identity as Ellis de Vries, she joins the resistance led by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), before being given an opportunity to perform missions more dangerous than being a flower vase in their operations, having demonstrated that she has the intelligence to pull off something more than just sit and smile.

And soon she's sent packing to the regional Gestapo HQ where she has to seduce her mark Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Yes, Lust, Caution style all over again, minus the gymnastics, but in Paul Verhoeven style, if you don't get gratuitous violence, you'll get gratuitous nudity. But this movie is not just about how satisfying the sex was for the enemy in order to let slip information that can be used by the resistance. Hell no, it goes more into the questionable motives of all, and I mean all, characters invovled. As she was advised early in the story, these are dangerous times to be trusting anyone, and with that ringing in our minds, we too begin to mistrust just about everyone else in the movie, except for of course our heroine.

What I particularly enjoyed, is just how all this lack of trust permeates amongst everyone, even amongst the Resistance, and more so amongst fellow German officers who make side deals and go for personal material gains to satisfy their greed. It's spy vs spy not only amongst the rival groups, but amongst their factions as well, that makes your head go in a dizzy trying to figure things out and ponder about everyone's loyalties. That mental exercise of drawing you into the story rather than to sit idly and watching things as they transpire on screen, makes Black Book a certain winner.

And with these flip-flopping loyalties come the demand from the actors to pull them off. Carice van Houten can give Tang Wei a run for her money, especially when Carice seems more like the tough-as-nails cookie who isn't the demure damsel in distress. She has a lot more spunk in her and does a whole lot more, and if I had to choose between who's the better spy amongst the two, I'd give Carice's Ellis my vote hands down. Sebastian Koch who plays her mark Muntze however, doesn't come across as menacing or dangerous enough though, while Thom Hoffman shone through as the roguish looking resistance fighter who's always first to volunteer for any firefight.

Black Book was released in 2006, which left me wondering why it took so long to arrive on our shores. I had the opportunity to watch it during last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, but due to scheduling conflicts, had to give the ticket up. So don't waste anymore time in getting to watch this on the big screen at The Picturehouse, which is already into its second week run. Well paced, excellent story and highly engaging, if you don't care much for the Panda (which is by the way an excellent crowd pleaser in its own right), then please open the Black Book and give it a go. Highly recommended.

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