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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thomas Alfredson's 'Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) is hauntingly sweet


Not that many people I know (non-film buffs who don't keep track on foreign film news) have heard of this beautiful Swedish film directed by Thomas Alfredson, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. When I was asked to explain the premise of the film, I was a little hard-pressed, the best I could come up with was...

"Um, it's like TWILIGHT, a love story between a human and a vampire, but maybe better and more poetic, and it's Swedish, the roles are reversed, and the characters are younger."

Unfortunately, I can never complete my sentence, once I say TWILIGHT, I'll be interrupted by one of the following:



"It's like TWILIGHT? Oh no, TWILIGHT? What, TWILIGHT?"

And so, by mentioning TWILIGHT, a film I haven't seen as it hasn't reached Japan (a country obviously untouched by the hype) I assume I have most probably done LET THE RIGHT ONE IN a gross injustice. Perhaps next time I'll just skip the TWILIGHT mention and pretend to be entirely oblivious to pop culture.

But I've explained the premise of the film, which is based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the screenplay. It centers on the relationship between a bullied 12-year-old human boy Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and a vampire girl Eli (Lina Leandersson) who looks 12 but is obviously much older than that. It's also a human drama and coming-of-age film that is simply resplendent in its handling of atmosphere, mixing melancholy and ominous dread effectively. One says that this film is this year's PAN'S LABYRINTH, especially with the foreign awards it's been sweeping in recent weeks, but I prefer LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (I enjoyed PAN'S, admired the filmmaking, but I never really understood its hype, thought that DEVIL'S BACKBONE was a better non-Hollywood Guillermo Del Toro film). Unfortunately, the film will not qualify for the Oscars as Sweden didn't bother to submit it for the Best Foreign Language Film category. Ouch!

Story takes place in the snowy Blackeberg, a suburb in Stockholm. Oskar, being a pretty boy, often gets bullied in school, so he practices with his knife at the courtyard every night, fantasizing a violent revenge on his bullies. One night he meets Eli, a pale and mysterious girl who recently moved in next door with an old man, Hakan.

Hakan's job is to capture victims in the town and drain their blood for Eli, but as old age is catching up with him, he finds his attempts constantly being foiled, which will later lead to tragic consequences that are more haunting and tragic than you can imagine.

There is growing attraction between Oskar and Eli. He constantly asks her to 'go steady' with him despite her repeated subtle warnings that she is 'not a girl'. Buoyed by the power of love, Oskar also finds himself the courage to fend for himself against the bullies. Ah, prepubescent love, what an innocent and beautiful thing it is. Everything is captured sensitively in the film, the brief moments of exhilaration, the illusion of invincibility, the awkward moments of shyness... I remember when I was 12, and felt some sort of affection towards a girl, my advances were cruelly rebuffed because I was an ugly fat nerd and a class clown whom she had never taken seriously...

(Note: caption for the pics were written 3 years ago, but they are pics of me taken when I was 10 and 11)

Okay, fine, I was going to lash at her for being shallow. But digging up old pics of myself again, I realize she's just being... sane. I WAS hideous. A classic tale of ugly duckling. Not a pretty boy with golden hair like Oskar.

Oskar from Let The Right One InFilm's title LET THE RIGHT ONE IN in sounds like a generic Hollywood teen movie or romantic comedy but it actually refers to a part of vampire mythology where a vampire can only enter a house when invited. The film does not explain its rules in boring exposition dialogue. Scenes play out quietly and patiently, allowing us to see the consequences of a vampire who is forced to enter a house without being properly invited.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN works for me because it is so sensitive and unexpectedly emotional. Some images and scenes linger (but I won't reveal which), the characters feel real, even for Eli, when you realize that turmoil of remorse and even trauma she seems to experience after a kill. And you try to imagine whether she feels like that throughout her lengthy existence as a vampire. You know she wants nothing more than to be a normal girl again without any need for her to tell us in a weepy scene.

Things are often left unsaid, character backstories are thankfully not shown on lengthy flashback sequences, allowing us to guess and assume, and feeling disturbed because of the subjectivity of our assumptions.

This is a film that dares to take upon a done-to-death genre and does new things with it, loyal enough to stick with some genre conventions, but showing how they can be properly executed, yet when the time comes, it defies expectations. Films like this I admire much more than those that try too hard to 'play it safe'. (I'm not just dissing mainstream cinema, I'm not a fan of self-indulgent films that seem to try too hard to be an avant garde work of art either.)

Highly recommended.