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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 11.26.10] Belgium movie review thriller drama fantasy

Year: 2010
Directors: Koen Mortier
Writers: Koen Mortier
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Films featuring ghosts generally fall into three broad categories: horror, comedy, and romance – apparently boring genres for Flemish writer/director Koen Mortier, who, in 22nd of May, conjures up a fascinating existential afterlife story about pain, guilt, death… and a suicide bomber.

The story itself is quite simple – a terrorist blows up himself and a clutch of shoppers in a smallish city mall. Our doomed shopping center features mall cop Sam, a sadsack semi-security guard who lives alone and who spends his workday chatting with merchants, evicting bums and answering banal questions from shoppers and delivery men. Today he’s done his rounds and is outside the mall, standing on the sidewalk, not really paying attention to anything. Then kaboom – a substantial bomb goes off. Sam is blasted to the ground, slowly recovers in a storm of dust and debris, crawls back into the building and starts dragging people towards safety. Others join him, but the building begins to collapse and as the rubble falls on people Sam cracks, running out of the smoke and flame and onto the streets, collapsing to the stone road only when he runs out of energy.

But wait. The streets are now deserted, empty of cars, people, life. A woman approaches. She’s the lady with the baby buggy he tried to rescue in the mall. If you’re really fast, you’ll get it. Everyone, including Sam, must have died in the blast or the building collapse and they’ve entered some kind of afterlife purgatory where Sam and the other ghosts – or whatever they are – now try to work out what happened and why. This gives us the opportunity to examine the various backstories of Sam, the bombing victims, and, of course, the bomber. They’re not at all what you might think.

Yes, it’s all fairly funky stuff, but what also keeps you wired to the screen is Mortier’s intelligent direction, the superbly gritty location shots, and killer original music that often drives the film’s emotional content, regardless of the tragedy it envelopes.

What’s quite appealing about 22nd of May is the form Mortier chose to package his story. He begins with a long single shot of Sam’s morning ritual – banal – and his trip to work – like descending into some hellish underworld. This is where we discover his occupation (although he wears no security identification) and underachieving attitude. After the bomb explodes we enter a kind of subconscious space, dominated by entropy, where Sam is forced to deal with his and the other’s feelings of guilt, pain and loss. This psychological purgatory at first leaves you confused, but Mortier skillfully weaves his strands together until he can reprise the explosion from the point-of-view of the already-dead participants. Fascinating!

The acting in 22nd of May is competent, but not overwhelming, as much of the action involves people creeping through derelict buildings or igniting their own emotional body bombs. Sam Louwyck plays Sam the security man, and he delivers the goods when required, as well as offering up a highly believable physical presence as he rolls around streets, slinks down hallways and deals with his dead accusers. When the dead meet Sam they tend to enjoy yelling and screaming at him, but in many ways these characters are simple ciphers of humanity, so aside from Sam and the bomber they’re not necessary to the story as specifically individual people.

What adds the zany zing (aside from the plot) are the sets and soundtrack. If the mall and stores are shiny bright and clean, then the after-blast world is just the opposite – most scenes look like they were shot for the “Life After People” TV series. Delicious rot and wreck underline the personal apocalypse of these people, and Mortier’s steadicam operator, Jo Vermaercke, is right there to catch it up close and personal. Original music for the film was supplied by a group called The Bony King of Nowhere and composer Michael Gallagher, and while you can’t tell who’s playing what, the driving music very successfully represents the emotional side of the story and adds all the meaning required to the many shots of subterranean or abandoned hallways and rooms. It’s a great soundtrack.

The final aspect of this film you’ll no doubt read or hear about is the fantastic ending. The 13 people who are responsible for the special and visual effects earned their dough in this spectacular sequence, and you’ll silently thank Mortier for cleverly setting up this great little piece of visual violence, done porno style in deep slo-mo.

Philosophically, this movie covers a lot of ground. The range of victims allows Mortier to examine different personality types – young mother to sexual pervert – as well as the mindset of the bomber, who isn’t a Muslim acting out of religious fervor. Sam, of course, feels the guilt of all this mayhem occurring on his shift, but he, like all the others, is confused and frustrated by his fate, basically because even when he understands what’s going on – and it’s not his fault -- nothing he can do is going to change history and the bomber will still hit the button. What you’ll find interesting in retrospect are Mortier’s ideas about suicide bombing. In this case our nutcase is driven by guilt and the warped concept of repayment through a gift of death. Yes, it’s always difficult to divine the will of god, much less measure it.

Complex. Murky. Ultimately unresolved. When the dust literally finally settles the 22nd of May is a wonderful study of various people who led a kind of death in life existence and how their real death doesn’t seem to change much. And Mortier achieves this insight without drawing any moral conclusions. Here’s hoping this excellent work arrives close to you someday. And if it does show, hopefully it’ll be in a movie theatre in a mall. That could be a blast.

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