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Berlin Film Festival 2024: The Roundup: Punishment, Last Swim, Through The Rocks And Clouds

Not every dispatch has a unifying theme; this one is more of a hodgepodge. Among the three films is the latest installment of a highly successful Korean action franchise, a coming-of-age character study of a British-Iranian girl battling suicidal ideations, and a young Peruvian shepherd boy with dreams of his country’s team qualifying for the World Cup. The three together provide a keen reminder of how good, tightly constructed cinematic stories can arise from anywhere.  

Of all the simple cinematic pleasures in life, Korean actor Ma Dong-seok throwing a stiff punch is chief among them. With a brawny body type that would normally relegate most actors of his stature into villains, Ma has become more than a dependable leading man: He is among the world’s biggest action stars. His role as the bruising cop Ma Seok-do in “The Roundup” film series has certainly helped to catapult him. It’s a testament to the series’ popularity that the bruising fourth installment “The Roundup: Punishment,” directed by Heo Myeong-haeng, is making its World Premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. 

It’s worthy of that lofty placement: “Punishment” is a rock 'em, sock 'em edition that pretty much delivers all the open-hand slaps, booming punches, and flying knees to the head you want. 

For Ma’s latest case, he must fulfill a promise to a grieving mother who lost her son to an online gambling syndicate. The digital casino is run by aloof IT genius Chang Dong-cheol (Lee Dong-hwi), who often employs the ruthless hitman Baek Chang-gi (Kim Moo-yul) to settle scores. The impatient Baek, however, is tiring of Chang: Despite promises of a big day through a hairbrained crypto scheme, the IT guy has held out on his best goon. On the flipside, Ma and his team struggle to find Chang and his outlaws, causing, after many dead ends, Ma to be removed from the case before begging to be put back on. 

“Punishment” is an efficiently constructed film that quickly moves from set piece to piece. South Korean action cinema has this kind of genre picture down to a science, and “The Roundup” is the best among them. Ma is the kind of cop that probably wouldn’t play on network television, he gleefully shakes down criminals and tortures witnesses. Still, he possesses a heart of gold: He often gives the young girl at the local Korean BBQ joint a few extra dollars. There are elements of other action films here: A rip-roaring bathroom fight stands as an homage to “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” and the film’s comedic character is clearly a nod to Joe Pesci in the “Lethal Weapon” series. This is also a far more violent film than previous installments that culminates in a scuffle on an airplane that leads to Ma’s most gruesome hit yet. It lands so hard, it punches viewers into the franchise’s inevitable next installment. 

Of film’s many genres, the coming-of-age story might be the most exciting contemporary play. Much of that has arisen because more filmmakers from diverse backgrounds are getting to tell new culturally specific stories. With a script co-written with Helen Simmons, writer/director Sasha Nathwani’s debut feature and winner of the Crystal Bear, “Last Swim,” is a sincere and vital picture that is uniquely derived and brimming with young love and strong friendships. Ziba (Deba Hekmat) is the smartest girl in her school. With dreams of studying astrophysicists nearly assured, the Iranian-British student appears to have it all. Except, on this day, the last day of school, she has decided to do a big hangout in anticipation of a rare meteor shower that will culminate with Ziba taking her life. As the film progresses we come to understand why Ziba is depressed: She’s been battling a deadly, debilitating health problem that may actually derail school. For Ziba, that thought is too much to bear. 

Though “Last Swim” takes place over a single day, between sun-kissed scenes and revelatory adventures like shopping for the perfect falafels or taking shrooms in a park, the film has an endless summer feel. The quartet of actors playing Ziba’s rambunctious friend group have excellent, fully felt chemistry: Jay Lycurgo has a mischievous energy as Merf; Solly McLeod as the aloof Shea often recalls Chris Hemsworth’s vulnerability; Lydia Fleming is a hoot as the wild child Tara; Denzel Baidoo as Malcolm, a footballer and late addition to the festivities, feels like a star in waiting. These characters are more than their archetypes; the actors give them rich inner lives that play less like genre conceits and more as people worth following. 

While there are hints of the immigrant experience, especially in Ziba’s relationship with her mom or Malcolm with his mother, it’s above all else a rich take of the unseen effect chronic illness can have on one’s mental health, and how easily the person struggling can hide the scars. Hekmat shines in that regard, protecting her performance not just from the viewer, but also as the character in the face of her worried friends. Hekmat hits both subtle beats and bold swings, taking us on a fraught journey that is empathetically guided by Nathwani. It’s a stirring debut by the director, assuredly crafted and remarkably empowering.   

Like most kids, eight-year-old Feliciano (Alberth Merma) has an active imagination. The son of a shepherd, he spends his days herding the family’s alpacas with the help of their dog Rambo. Of these fluffy creatures, one is his favorite, named after his favorite footballer: Renaldo. With a radio, he ventures out into the Peruvian countryside’s verdant hills and picturesque rivers, listening to the Peruvian national team’s games in the hopes they’ll qualify for the World Cup. Franco García Becerra’s “Through the Rocks and Clouds” (or “Raíz”) isn’t all lush days spent in rolling fields. There is an existential threat to Feliciano's village. A local mining company is polluting the water and is now pressuring them to sell the land. When alpacas go missing, including the lovely Renaldo, Feliciano knows it’ll take plenty of magic to find the herd.

Often recalling “Utama,” a film similarly defined by an eco-threat, the modest but effective screenplay written by Annemarie Gunkel and Alicia Quispe takes aim at the perniciousness of the kind of cruelness displayed by a company who would resort to employing black-clad motorcyclists to launch a fear campaign against some humble villagers. Merma is wonderful as the young Feliciano, balancing kidlike wonder with uncommon determination as he works to appease a local legend, who might be able to help. 

While “Utama” was a distressing picture that explained the environmental toll at play through shots of the arid, broken land, with “Through the Rocks and Clouds” DP Johan Carrasco wants you to see the beauty of this area. Maybe if you see the delicacy of the surroundings, you’ll know what is at stake. Before long, the villagers, along with Feliciano’s parents, decide to resist: They block the road leading from the mine back into town. An air of danger looms over the public action, but they’re not going to sit idly by and watch their ancestral home destroyed. “Through the Rocks and Clouds” is a defiant film, one that is so thoughtfully calibrated it’d be easy to miss just how well it mixes the whimsical with the profound. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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