The New York Asian Film Festival ran from August 28 to September 12. For more details, click here.
The Girl and the Gun, or the slightly more evocative Babae at Baril, is a curious choice for an opening film. In some ways it sets itself up as something of a cathartic crowd-pleaser. But it makes several fascinating but perhaps fundamentally misguided turns that seemed almost counter productive and, in the end, left me a bit cold. Screenwriter turned debut director Rae Red is an undeniable talent, and there are the bones of an entertaining B-Picture with an edge here. But ultimately, it’s a bit of a misfire.
Whatever issues the film has, none of them can be laid at the feet of Janine Gutierrez, who portrays the Babae of the title and makes a very strong case for her own stardom. From the opening moments where she squirms under the pitiless gaze of her manager, berating her in front of her fellow co-workers for her disheveled uniform, Gutierrez takes her archetypal character (the mousy, put upon young woman incapable of standing up for herself) and infuses it with a warmth and humanity that makes the heavy handed abuse she suffers at the hands of her various tormentors feel far more impactful than it has any right to.
Our nameless heroine goes about her days, dressed down by her boss, intimidated by her more put-together fellow employees, ignored by her mom who has moved on with a second family, and held in contempt by her roommates asshole of a boyfriend. And throughout all this, she carries herself with a sort of rumpled dignity.
And then she gets raped, at which point I started to turn against the movie.
The sequence in which a co-worker befriends the girl, offers her a gift of replacement stockings, cajoles her into trying them on so he can return them if they don’t fit, and forcibly takes her is harrowing in the extreme, a queasy set piece that ratchets up the tension and unfolds with a nightmarish inevitability. And as the rapist, Felix Roco is grotesquely skilled at switching from sheepish “nice guy” to leering monster and back again. It’s all very horrifying, and very effective. But when I used the term set piece before, I meant it, and that is far from a good thing.
The argument could be made that the ugliness of it is the point. But it still feels gratuitous, exploitative, and just plain unpleasant. It feels like a betrayal of the tone that’s been set up thus far, and an unnecessary and all-too-predictable motivation for our characters ensuing rampage, especially given the nature of that rampage and the far more interesting places it could have led. But we’ll come to that later. For now, the point remains: We’ve seen this before, over and over again. And the skill with which this particular version has been put together makes it all the more repulsive.
She already has the gun by this point, having uncovered it in a dumpster and walked by the corpse of… well, either the owner or a victim, it’s too soon to tell. But it doesn’t really come into play until a bit later, when she uses it to ward off her roommates boyfriend,, who is not just an asshole but, as it turns out an abuser as well.
And Gutierrez sells the hell out of the moment; the mix or fear and defiance as she points the gun at him, and the barest hint of thrill when she sees the fear in his eyes. And thus, the transformation has begun.
The next few scenes of the movie did wonders to get me back on board after the seemingly fatal misstep of the rape scene; every time Gutierrez lets her inner badass out, it is a supreme delight. She’s so fun to watch in these moments, and the fact that she doesn’t have the gun on her person when she stands up for herself lends itself to an interesting twist that I wish the movie had realized would have made for a more interesting piece than where the movie eventually goes: the idea that the girl doesn’t actually need to fire the gun; merely possessing it gives her the force of character to finally stop being a doormat.
There’s a subversive satirical kick in the idea of a kind of gun fueled empowerment movie, and for a while I thought that’s where all this was going. But Chekov is as Chekov does, and since the stakes were raised to “rape”, I suppose it was inevitable that vigilante justice of some kind had to follow.
***FULL SPOILERS AHEAD***
And yet here again, I thought the film was heading towards a more interesting idea: the third act essentially begins when the girl returns home to find her roommate has been assaulted by the boyfriend she had scared off earlier. She grabs her gun and asks where to find him, vowing to take care of the problem once and for all. And this struck me as a genuinely interesting twist: the revenge thriller where the heroine seeks vengeance not for her own assault, but on behalf of her friend. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that before, and it seemed a clever way to subvert the tired old rape-revenge tropes.
But no, instead the very next scene is the girl stalking and chasing after her own rapist; the roommate and her abusive boyfriend are never heard from or mentioned for the rest of the film.
As a critic, you’re supposed to review the movie you got as opposed to the movie you wish you’d gotten. And I concede that the failings of the film as I may see them are based largely in what feels like the wasted potential on display. But still, I felt it exceedingly difficult to not feel a great wave of disappointment at just how rote the movie became in the third act.
Until the final twenty minutes, when ‘disappointing’ took a nosedive into ‘bewilderingly misguided’. For you see, right at the very end of the film, with the girl aiming her gun right at her rapists’ head…
… the film cuts away to an entirely different story; the history of the gun itself, from its creation to the dumpster where the girl first found it.
In the last fifteen minutes of the film we span several decades and meet roughly a dozen new characters as the gun gets handed off from would-be political assassins to a bullying cop to a snack vendor/possible drug dealer to his best friend, and finally, to the dumpster.
To be sure, this is a structural gambit that has worked in the past: Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee are past masters at this sort of thing. But here it’s handled so sloppily, arbitrarily, and deflatingly that it’s mind-boggling that anyone thought this would actually work. It throws off the pacing of an already weirdly paced film all to hell and defuses tension right at the point when it should be at its highest. By the time we get back to the girl, its hard to care whether or not she shoots the rapist (she doesn’t; she lets him go).
It’s a fascinating thing that the screenplay is the weakest part of The Girl and The Gun, given Red’s pedigree. And there’s a small part of me that is inclined to champion the film regardless of its massive flaws; those same flaws show the mark of ambition and the style of the film is top notch; Rae Red has a genuine talent for goosing tension, the director of photography Tey Clamor sets up some genuinely gorgeous shots and the colorist Nico Ebora more than earns his rarely seen opening credit with his almost hallucinogenic urban palette. It’s an extremely good looking film that is quite effective in spots. But on the basic level of being a story, it’s a mess that even Janine Gutierrez’s star-in-the-making performance can’t save.
I will watch whatever Rae Red comes up with next, but this one is a misfire, plain and simple.