“Valhalla Murders”—The House of the Dead

Kudos to Netflix for another great Nordic noir production. In this eight-episode series, Netflix’s first Icelandic co-production, we have a crime thriller about a gruesome serial killer whose murders go back over thirty-five years.  Valhalla Murders is actually based upon a series of murders that took place in Reykjavik.  There is some uneven pacing, but it is over shadowed by the unexpected twists and turns of this Nordic murder mystery.

In the opening scene the main character, Detective Kata, is severely wounded and on the verge of death.  Immediately Valhalla Murders flashes back to twelve days earlier: to the first of a series of brutal murders at a harbor in Reykjavik. Kata should be in charge, but her boss Magnus purposefully overlooks her. Resentment festers.  Magnus calls upon a Norwegian police officer, Arnar, to come back from Oslo to his native Iceland to assist with the investigation.  Kata begrudgingly works with Arnar on Iceland’s first-ever  serial murder case.  The Norwegian police officer’s painful past growing up in Iceland parallels  Kata’s painful relationships with her son, ex-husband, and Magnus.

However, the shocking events of the murders bring the two deeply flawed characters closer together as the  investigation unearths sordid secrets and horrors from decades ago. The deeper they delve into the murders, the more Kata and Arnar respect each other’s investigative skills and relentless commitment to finding the murderer.

The past connection with a state-run boys’ school, Valhalla, importantly leads to controversy and coverup.  As the name Valhalla implies, it is the hall for the heroic dead,  the residence of the Nordic god of war and death, Odin.   But was Valhalla’s home for boys, now closed, ever a safe haven for young boys? 

As the mystery deepens, we see how Kata and Arnar resist the twists and turns thrown at them by those obstructing justice. On fearlessly delving into the  horrifying past, which links the murders to each other,  the two detectives reveal the truth. They both persevere despite the cost of unearthing  unspeakable evil, the monster in the dark. 

Note: Netflix released Valhalla Murders on March 13, 2020 with all eight episodes streaming together.

The Stranger–or Estranged

Another series to binge during this C-virus pandemic is Netflix’s The Stranger. 

Produced by Harlan Coben and based on his novel of the same name, this newly released British series opens with a teenage drug fest complete with bonfire and more than a few hints of mayhem.   Part mystery, but most of all, family drama especially between fathers and their children, The Stranger quickly turns seemingly content lives into ones festering with secrets.

Adam Price (Richard Armitage), one of several main and deeply flawed characters, is approached by a beautiful stranger  (Hannah John-Kamen) and told  a shocking secret about his wife, Corinne.  Over the course of eight episodes, the stranger reveals more unimaginable secrets to a number of unsuspecting family members.  Each episode rewards the viewer with a more complicated plot, with additional characters and their secrets exposed. The stranger threatens to make public deeply personal and shameful events and insinuates  extortion.   Detective Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran), soon to retire and contemplating divorce, has become both emotionally and professionally obsessed with solving the series of criminal acts that unfold each episode .

The blackmail initiated by the Stranger sets off a chain of unfortunate and suspenseful events.  By the end of the series we know why the stranger blackmails.  And we have assented to following unsympathetic characters to the end of the main story, with most of the subplots resolved, but not all.  For some viewers this will result in several  twisty plot threads unwinding not completely to their satisfaction.  While I applaud the complexity of characters which adds to the suspense, some are more a distraction than a contribution to the main plot, dragging down the fast pace and momentum.

I’m hopeful that a Season Two will resolve some  unanswered questions and loose threads.  The imaginative twists that happen primarily to Adam Price, the Stranger, and the detective Johanna Griffin who stalwartly attempts to resolve the murders,  are definitely worth watching during this “settle in place” mandate around most of the country!

“Earthquake Bird”—An Unpredictable Flight

Based on the titular novel by Susanna Jones,  Earthquake Bird was released in November 2019.  A psychological thriller with film noir features reminding this viewer of Alfred Hitchcock,   Earthquake Bird is all about guilt and the insidious nature and burden of carrying it.  More slow-paced with a scene or two reminiscent of Memento, this film captures the day-to-day life of guilt and jealousy, pulling back the curtain on what damage and unpredictability can do.

In 1989 an American woman is discovered dismembered in Tokyo.  Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander), a Swedish expat who is a translator and interpreter for  corporations and government, is taken into custody for questioning.  Lucy admits she knew the victim, Lily Bridges (Riley  Keough), but offers little else in terms of facts or other background information. Though she isn’t talking, she’s remembering.  Flashbacks — and flashbacks within flashbacks — tell the story of how she met and fell in love with Teiji Matsuda (Naoki Kobayashi), a strange and handsome street photographer.  Later,  at a nightclub, Lucy  meets the free-spirited Lily, a young woman who has just arrived in Tokyo to find work and an apartment.  Reluctantly pressured into helping Lily settle into Tokyo’s hectic urban life,  Lucy slowly forms a symbiotic relationship with Lily that complicates Lucy’s relationship with Teiji, the photographer.

Unable to  forget painful , deeply traumatic memories that have damaged her, Lucy is losing her grasp of reality.  The pivoting of character arcs leads to the resolution of the murder with surprising twists and psychological redemption offered by  a minor character.

The Japanese setting also adds a cultural dimension to Earthquake Bird, giving more complexity and suspense to the story.   This is an oddball film with a constant undercurrent of subtle tension. Earthquake Bird – in both Japanese and English—is  intriguing in  its ability to plumb the depths of childhood pain, guilt, and family betrayal.  The drizzle-gray cinematic shots of Tokyo and the notable, reflective performances of all cast members, particularly Alicia Vikander’s as a young Japanese-speaking woman, are unforgettable.   (Vikander also speaks Japanese in a fluent, albeit foreigner’s, accent.)  Earthquake Bird may be a challenge to understood and rejected by those who cannot adjust to the pacing and somewhat abrupt ending of this film.  For the rest of us Earthquake Bird is definitely worth watching!

Note: Available on Netflix

“Mr. Sunshine” (2018): Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey

Viewers are treated, in this 24-episode series, Mr. Sunshine,  to a glimpse of  Korean history that few outside of Korea will be familiar with .   Screenwriting legend, Kim Eun Sook, has created an  intricate historical romance set in 1871, when a US military ship docked in Korea, wishes to expand into Asia for the exploitation of natural resources and land.  We first are introduced to Mr. Sunshine , Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), as a nine-year old Korean boy born into a family of slaves.   In a dramatic turn of events, the little boy runs away with an American missionary  to New York City.  Thirty years later, as a U.S. military officer, Choi is sent to Joseon (Korea) and  unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful  aristocrat’s daughter, Go Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri), a member of the class which enabled the slavery of his parents.

Jumping ahead thirty-four years to 1904, Japan breaks off relations with Russia, President Teddy Roosevelt says publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality” between Russia and Japan but privately he writes: “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.”

Go Ae-sin

In this complex political backdrop, Roosevelt cuts off relations with Korea, setting up a US “legation” and approving the annexation of Korea to Japan. This is the stage for Mr. Sunshine

U.S. army captain, Eugene Choi , is seen at the White House meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.  His main mission as deputy consul is to maneuver among the four colonial powers –the US, Russia, China  and Japan–looking to exploit the newly independent Korea.  Slavery is slowly being abolished, a small middle-class is emerging, and Western customs are finding their way into a proud nation.

Mr. Sunshine has a complicated roster of characters,– both villains and protagonists—who, at times, fuse into bromance and arch-rivals for the love of the exquisite Ae-sin .   This series has a delightful comic tone between the three major male characters simulating peacocks in posturing before Ae-sin.  Yet there is a slapstick vibe to other comic scenes which are ill-fitted, at least for a foreign audience.  Maintaining a Jane Austen-type romantic tension over twenty-four hour-long episodes requires a meticulous attention to plot and dialogue, something the screenwriter does in  surprisingly inventive plot-points.  

Few of these actors will ever become household names in our Hollywood film industry, but their talents are as good as  any iconic Hollywood performer.  Lee Byung-hun as Eugene Choi delivers a riveting performance full of subtle conflict (for example, between the land of his birth and the country he calls home)  and emotions that are revealed on his face.  It’s difficult for this viewer to take her eyes off him. The quiet nature of his character makes those rare intense outbursts of rage and grief even more effective.

Mr. Sunshine will appeal to selected audiences  for its visually stunning and melodramatic episodes as well as its unique portrayal of a lesser-known historical period for most American viewers.  Others may  relegate Mr. Sunshine to the level of soap opera in costume but to do so would be to miss out on a romance with historical underpinnings.

Note:  Available to stream on Netflix.

The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band]

            [Guest reviewer  Barbara Artson, author of the novel Odessa, Odessa ]

Director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) opens in total darkness. We see nothing but hear only the elderly voice of a narrator:  

“I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay, and after so many years it remains obscure today, and I must leave it in darkness.”

And so the schoolteacher narrator, now an old man, begins his rendering in a series of flashbacks, depicting the mystifying and horrific happenings that transpired in his youth .  There is indeed something rotten in this pre-industrial, ruthless Lutheran culture in a small, agrarian German village shortly before the start of World War I.  .

We encounter the Pastor, his wife and children glumly seated at their dining room table.  They are arbitrarily sent to bed without dinner, but not before being forced to beg their brutal authoritarian father for forgiveness.  A special punishment, ten strokes of the cane, will be meted out and   after their penalty “purifies” them, the pastor informs them that their mother will attach a white ribbon for them to wear, only to be removed when they have proven their trustworthiness. 

Haneke’s films are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to understand. They confront the observer with aging, infirmity, and death (Amour), sexual perversity (The Piano Teacher), a critique of the media and the ways in which we avoid self-reflection (Cache), and hypocrisy (The White Ribbon). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The children,  some twenty or twenty-five years later, will return as the Fascists and Nazis of World War II.   They might have asked the forgiveness of their callous, fathers, fathers who perpetrated psychic mortification and corporal violence,  but the seeds of repressed hatred will break through.  

 Heneke maintains that his film is not an explanation for the roots of Nazi terrorism, but the schoolteacher’s claim that his tale “may clarify some of the things that happened in this country,” asserts otherwise.  It seems plausible that Haneke, who grew up with the shame that plagued many of his generation, wrote under the spell of unconscious survivor’s guilt. 

The film, nevertheless, can also speak to us, who, are left in darkness. And weep.

Note: Available on Netflix.