Vietnamese-French director Tran Ahn Hung’s Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya were exercises in style over substance. Atmospheric almost to a fault, both made you forget that great films possess a strong story to support their images. Unsurprisingly his latest, I Come With the Rain, is more of the same. Tran loads up the garden-variety revenge/redemption tale with enough religious imagery to make the Pope proud, mixing it with an audience-baiting (some would say calculated) international cast and some profligate violence in order to say … not so much. But man it sure looks purdy.
I Come With the Rain has a confounding ‘story’ that falls apart as soon as any thought is put into it; characters are given little backstory with which to justify their hideous behaviour. Everyone in Rain is guilty of some level of sadism. Oodles of ridiculous dialogue distract from Tran’s message about our collective penchant for torment and a desperate need for salvation. ‘I’m the owner of the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. I’m a very powerful man.’ What? Said message is delivered by rambling, philosophical speechifying from Kline’s (Hollywood entry Hartnett) nemesis Hasford – another kick at the Ironically Introspective Homicidal Maniac can. Once the Jesus imagery kicks in (courtesy of Japanese idol Kimura) the narrative has devolved to such a degree that words become white noise.
That’s neither here nor there. The real story in I Come With the Rain is in the sweaty ambience that leaches into every scene and the hideous pain we inflict on each other, all set to an emollient soundtrack by (Argentinean composer) Gustavo Santaolalla and (British rockers) Radiohead. The film opens with a spectacular, palpably grisly mano à mano between Kline and Hasford (a truly creepy, Canadian Elias Koteas), whose victims become perverse sculptures. When Su (Korean superstar Lee) doesn’t get the answers he wants from an informant he beats him to death – with a freshly killed dog. Even Shitao’s good deeds are soaked in blood: for every soul he heals the cost to him is open wounds and weeping sores. But man it sure looks purdy.
Thin as the plot may be the cast works hard to sell it. Hartnett is better than usual, and never plays the Ugly American amid hot Asian chicks card, which could have a lot to do with Tran’s anti-Orientalism. Kimura has the physical presence for his role as the unassuming pseudo-prophet uneasily bearing the weight of our sins, though the illusion is shattered as soon as he opens his mouth. When he utters his fateful parting shots at Su the giggle factor goes through the roof.
The standout here is Lee as Su. Lee – one of the earliest Korean Wave pretty boys – could be resting on his laurels as the industry’s elder statesman (at a whopping 39!). In Rain, Lee combines the brutality of A Bittersweet Life’s Sun-woo with The Good, The Bad, The Weird’s swaggering Chang-yi. His Su Dongpo is a complete nutter – but a controlled one that’s all the more dangerous for it. When one of his henchmen loses track of his junkie girlfriend Lili (Tran Nu Yen Khe), the guy knows he’s doomed – and what a doom. (Hong Kong actor Carl Ng plays the henchman by the way. For those who’d like to see Ng pay for his sins in Colour Blossoms, here’s your chance.) Lee/Su is the perpetrator of two the most gruesome onscreen homicides of 2009. That’s quite a feat. And somehow … it sure looks purdy.