Monday, May 19, 2008

Two from North Korea: "Bellflower" and "My Look in the Distant Future"

Bellflower (Jo Kyong-sun)

This film, in contrast to the less overtly propagandistic Hong Kil Dong, exhibits the full-on expression of the Juche (self-reliance) ideology that all North Korean films are meant to illustrate. However, the thwarted love story at its center is the melodramatic sugar that makes the ideological medicine go down. The film begins with a man, Won Bong, who takes his son, Se Ryong, to the village he used to live. He is now an exile due to his failed love affair with Song Rim (O Mi-ran), or “Bellflower,” nicknamed as such after her favorite flower. She is the idealized, hard-working comrade, whose every thought and action is devoted to modernizing her village and her farm collective. Wu Bong wishes to marry her, but her sister Song Hwa is violently opposed, as they have been orphaned because of the Korean War, and she is afraid of being left alone. Wu Bong is offered a job in the city, and wants Song Rim to accompany him. He wants to make his fortune there, and thinks it will take their village a century to catch up technologically to the city. She refuses to go with him, and throws herself into improving the village. Wu Bong, having failed in the city, and now living in painful regret of his lack of faith in the power of the village people, sends his son to ask for forgiveness on his behalf. He ends the film crying, clutching the dirt, asking forgiveness from the village he abandoned, and the now deceased Song Rim, who sacrificed her life for the village.

Bellflower resembles both Chinese Maoist propaganda films, with the frequent paeans in song given to the virtuousness of their work, and South Korean tear-jerker melodramas. As the latter, it seems to be quite effective, as evidenced by the tears streaming down the face of the woman who sat next to me at the screening. O Mi-ran, dubbed “the People’s Actress,” more than fulfills this role, as the pure, virtuous comrade, so selfless and devoted to her people. The characterizations are tissue paper-thin, but this is in service to its true aim, as all the characters are types to illustrate the message of the folly of putting personal gain over the collective good.

My Look in the Distant Future (Jang In-hak)

Released in the midst of the catastrophic famine that struck North Korea in the mid 90’s, My Look in the Distant Future, as indicated by its title, exhorts its viewers to look past the then current troubles to the bright, shining future that is possible if all citizens put their nose to the grindstone and work, work, work selflessly for the good of the nation. Once again, as in Bellflower, a melodramatic love story, the bulk of which is told in flashback, forms the spine of this story. But here, the ideological content is in overdrive, with frequent songs attesting to the goodness of the paternal Great Leader, and the glory of the country and its people. Lessons for proper citizen behavior are illustrated by the story of dissolute, spoiled slacker Jun (Kim Myong-mun), whose father was a great hero, and who is content to live in the reflected glory of his parents’ accomplishments, causing his parents no end of embarrassment and grief, especially his father, who holds his son responsible for half the gray hairs on his head. One rainy night, Jun gives a ride to Su Yang (Kim Hye-gyong), a young woman with whom he becomes instantly smitten. He later learns she is the group leader of a construction brigade, and tries to use his influence to get her into school to train for a more prestigious position. Su Yang turns this down to work on a farm, and Jun follows her to work on the farm during his vacation time. He wishes to take her back to Pyongyang to marry her, but his plans are thwarted when she rejects him for not having a pure heart, and not being a son worthy of his parents, especially his grandfather, a war hero during the resistance to Japanese rule. Thereafter begins a painful maturing process, where Jun learns the error of his ways, and achieves the great accomplishment of finding an alternative to oil for the farm’s tractor. The message is clear: the individual is nothing, worse than nothing, actually pernicious, and the collective is all.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Romance a la Mode

My Blueberry Nights. 2007. Directed by Wong Kar-wai. Written by Wong Kar-wai and Lawrence Block. Produced by Wong Kar-wai and Jacky Pang Yee-wah. Cinematography by Darius Khondji. Edited and production design by William Chang Suk-ping. Music by Ry Cooder. Costume design by William Chang Suk-ping and Sharon Globerson.

Cast: Norah Jones (Elizabeth), Jude Law (Jeremy), David Strathairn (Arnie), Rachel Weisz (Sue Lynne), Natalie Portman (Leslie), Chan Marshall [Cat Power] (Katya), Frankie Faison (Travis), Jesse Garon (Young Poker Player).

My Blueberry Nights opened the Cannes Film Festival last year to profoundly unenthusiastic notices, and when it finally opened in the States earlier this year, the critical reception wasn’t much better. I received my copy of the Hong Kong DVD recently, and after viewing it, I find the overwhelmingly negative reception to this film rather baffling. While I won’t argue that it is his best film (that would be In the Mood for Love), it is a beautiful piece of work that finds the patented Wong style – speeded-up pixilated motion, swooning romanticism, an unerring instinct in finding the perfect song to fit a mood – successfully transplanted to the US. Cinematographer Darius Khondji proves a worthy successor to Wong’s erstwhile collaborator Christopher Doyle, and Wong has retained his most important creative partner, editor and production designer William Chang Suk-ping, to quite salutary effect. The New York diner where the film begins and ends recalls most closely the Hong Kong fast-food joint that was a principal location of Chungking Express. We rarely look at the characters head on: we peer at them through windows, down corridors, through doorways, a voyeuristic style reminiscent of how the characters are viewed in In the Mood for Love. And while Norah Jones is most certainly no Maggie Cheung, as Jude Law is no Tony Leung, My Blueberry Nights can definitely stand, though maybe not as tall, with his other work.

The film is essentially a road movie, its central figure Elizabeth (Norah Jones) taking “the longest way to cross the street.” At the outset, Elizabeth, distraught at her boyfriend leaving her for another woman, stumbles into the diner owned by Jeremy (Jude Law), a cheerful fellow who seems outwardly to have few cares, although later we learn he has his own sad tale of thwarted romance. He pontificates to Elizabeth his unique philosophy which uses the popularity of different flavors of pie to explain human behavior. After one night at the diner after hours, when she cries her eyes out while watching footage of her ex and his new belle taken with Jeremy’s security camera, and passes out drunk afterward, she sets out on a cross country trip to escape her pain. Elizabeth ends up in Memphis, working as a diner waitress during the day, and nights at a dive bar. Elizabeth sends letters to Jeremy periodically, while Jeremy in New York frantically calls every diner in Memphis in an attempt to find her. In the film’s midsection, Elizabeth’s story takes a back seat somewhat to those of people she meets along the way: an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) pining away and drowning himself in drink over his estranged wife (Rachel Weisz). Later, Elizabeth works at a casino where she runs into a blonde-haired card shark (Natalie Portman). Elizabeth mostly stays silent while she listens to other characters’ laments, which helps to keep Elizabeth an appropriately opaque character, while perhaps making things a little easier for the inexperienced Norah Jones.

Wong uses songs to typically expressive effect, in much the same fashion as the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” in Chungking Express and Nat King Cole’s Portuguese tunes in In the Mood for Love. Here, Wong makes great use of Cat Power’s “The Greatest” (Cat Power herself shows up in a great scene as Jeremy’s lost love) and Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness.” The marriage of these songs with Wong’s visuals exhibit the old magic we’ve come to expect with his films. A little faded, perhaps, but it’s still there. The narrative situations, scripted by mystery writer Lawrence Block along with Wong, are admittedly a little trite on paper, but Wong’s strength has never been in narrative, but in mood and atmosphere. Comparing what happens in this film to situations in the real world, as many critics seem to have done, is rather pointless because Wong is not presenting a real world, but a facet of his distinctive cinematic universe. Setting the film in such iconic American locations as Memphis and Las Vegas allows Wong to refract such overly familiar locations through a lens that is so adept at creating inimitable, fetishized images such as Jude Law licking the cream off Norah Jones’ lips as she sleeps. My Blueberry Nights, far from the failure it has been widely interpreted as, is instead a beautifully made experiment that takes Wong out of his comfort zone and melds his style successfully to the American landscape.

My Blueberry Nights can be purchased from

Cat Power's scene, which could stand alone as a great short film:

Saturday, May 17, 2008

"Films from the North" Review: Kim Kil-in's "Hong Kil Dong"

Hong Kil Dong. 1986. Directed by Kim Kil-in. Written by Kim Se Ryun. Cinematography by Hong Sok Jon.

Cast: Ri Yong-ho, Ri Gwon, Ri Ri-youn, Chang Son-hui, Kenpachiro Satsuma.

For a jaded filmgoer like me, discoveries these days are few and far between. However, the cinema of North Korea is truly an undiscovered country. Most cinematic representations of this secretive regime come in the form of documentaries, such as Daniel Gordon's films The Game of Their Lives and A State of Mind, as well as fictionalized renditions of North Korean characters in such South Korean films as Joint Security Area and Shiri. There have been limited studies in English of North Korean cinema, most notably in Hyangjin Lee's book Contemporary Korean Cinema. However, North Korean films have very rarely been shown outside their home country. The most recent North Korean film that got some attention was The Schoolgirl's Diary, which screened last year at the Cannes Film Festival film market. North Korean films have not shown in New York, as far as I know. However, this week the Korea Society afforded viewers a rare opportunity to sample this country's cinema in their film series, "Films From the North," which featured three North Korean films, two from the 1980's (Hong Kil Dong, Bellflower) and one from the mid-90's (My Look in the Distant Future).

North Korean films, much like Chinese cinema in the Mao years, were not simply entertainment, but state ideological apparatus meant to promote the glories of both the "Great Leader," Kim Il-sung, and the "Dear Leader", Kim's son and current leader Kim Jong-il. Also, these films sought to instill proper behavior in the viewer, and provide examples of virtuous, selfless citizens who worked for the country and its people, and forsook selfish personal gain. Kim Jong-il, especially, was and remains the main force behind North Korean cinema. As Columbia University professor Charles Armstrong put it in his opening remarks before the screening of Hong Kil Dong, the first film in the series, Kim Jong-il is in effect the executive producer of every North Korean film, since all aspects of film production are under his very tight control. Kim is also a notoriously extreme cinephile, the owner of a vast collection of films, and also allegedly behind the abduction of South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife, Choi Eun-hee. So after having read a little on this cinema, the opportunity to see actual examples was one I couldn't pass up.

Hong Kil Dong turns out to be a rather diverting, if a little creaky, martial-arts action flick surprisingly free of overt ideological content. In fact, with a slight change of costume, this could be a 1960's or 70's Shaw Brothers tale, with its stark, literally black-and-white morality play, and the director using his zoom lens like it was going out of style. In fact, it pretty much was out of style by 1986, at least in the rest of the world. Hong Kil Dong was based on a popular folktale that has been adapted over the years for various media in both the North and South. The title character (Ri Yong-ho) grows up with a major strike against him, as far as the mores of the rigidly class-based Confucian society of the Joseon Dynasty was concerned: he was born the illegitimate son of a high-ranking minister and his concubine. Kil Dong's mother is continually mistreated by the minister’s jealous wife, who tries to eliminate both Kil Dong and his mother by paying a gang of bandits to ambush and kill them. However, they are saved by a kindly wizened martial-arts master who shelters them and takes the young man under his wing, training him to be a fighter. His training is complicated when he saves a minister’s young daughter from the clutches of the same gang of bandits who tried to kill him. He is instantly smitten, but his master sternly warns him against being distracted, and he instead sends her back home. After his training is done, the master sends Kil Dong away, telling him to use his skills in the service of the people. He returns home with his mother, and the minister whose daughter he saved is all in favor of letting them be married, until he learns of his background. Such a breach of class cannot be allowed, no matter what the reason. Thereafter, Kil Dong becomes a North Korean Robin Hood, righting the wrongs done to the people by the corrupt nobility. His enemies are warned of their impending doom by the sound of him playing the flute. When Japanese ninjas invade, he teams with his former enemies and the rest of the citizens to vanquish them. When, after saving the entire country, he is still prevented from marrying the woman he loves, he realizes at long last that there is no place for him in this society, and he gets on a boat with other former citizens to look for a freer place to live.

Hong Kil Dong is punctuated by frequent acrobatic fight scenes that, despite the cheesy effects and obvious wirework, are rather impressive considering the conditions under which it was made. The film’s keen sense of outrage at corrupt leadership, and the protagonist’s decision to flee his oppressive society, makes it very tempting to read in this a veiled commentary on what was happening in North Korea as its fortunes were starting to take a very bad turn. However, as Armstrong pointed out in his opening remarks, it is highly unlikely that its audience would have gleaned this meaning from the film, considering how isolated the country was from the rest of the world, and from other systems of thought other than those propounded by the Great Leader. As unremarkable as the film's plot may be, it nevertheless affords a tantalizing glimpse into a virtually unknown cinema created by an as equally unknown country.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

As Far As the "I" Can See

Real Fiction (Shilje sanghwang). 2000. Written, directed, and production designed by Kim Ki-duk. Produced by Harry Lee and Shin Seung-soo. Cinematography by Hwang Cheol-hyeon. Edited by Kyeong Min-ho. Music by Jeon Sang-yun.

Cast: Ju Jin-mo, Kim Jin-ah, Son Min-seok, Lee Je-rak, Kim Ki-yeon, Myeong Sun-mi, Jang Hyeong-seong.

Real Fiction, shot in 200 minutes (after extensive rehearsals) using ten 35mm cameras and two DV camcorders, was conceived by Kim Ki-duk as an experiment, and it’s not an entirely successful one. The skeletal-thin plot concerns a taciturn (as per the case of most of Kim’s protagonists) street portrait artist (Ju Jin-mo), who is known only as “I” in the credits. His work is often insulted by his customers (a man criticizes his accuracy in rendering a photograph, and a woman tears and discards his work after she leaves him), and is shaken down periodically by a trio of petty criminal thugs. He is visited by a young woman (Kim Jin-ah) shooting a video camera. After the artist finishes her portrait, she tells him she has no money for it. “Can I pay you another way?” she says. She leads him to a theater, where a young man, an actor in a play, sits on a bare stage. This leads to a long, bizarre scene in which the actor, while punching and kicking the artist, seems to have psychically picked up on the artist’s tragic story, and his vengeful grievances toward everyone who has wronged him. Thus begins his mission of revenge which continues for the rest of the film, in which the man exacts murderous payback towards all the people who have hurt him. This begins with the actor who has awakened the artist’s rage, when he shoots (and perhaps kills) the actor with a prop gun that turns out to have live bullets.

“I” stalks the streets thereafter, confronting and murdering figures from his past and present: a girlfriend who has been cheating on him, having sex with her lover on top of the flowers she sells in her shop; a fellow former marine who beat him up during their military service; a man who married and then abandoned a woman he loved (who is now the unhappy owner of a comic book shop); the detective who tortured him during interrogation. The young woman with the video camera follows him throughout, and scenes of the young man on his murderous rampage alternate with what seem to be surreptitious shots from the woman’s camera. She remains mostly unseen until the conclusion, when the artist seemingly confronts his video stalker and makes her his last victim … or perhaps not, as the last scenes indicate, making us question all that has come before, and expressing the contradictory sense of the film’s English title. In the end, as I say, the experiment, however diverting, doesn’t quite work. There is a vaguely articulated attempt to say something about the ambiguous nature of artistic representation, and artifice vs. reality, and whether there is a real difference between the two. Maybe, but exactly what is being said is never quite clear, making this a rather diffuse and imprecise work, very much an oddity among Kim’s often exceedingly odd (and perverse) oeuvre.

Real Fiction screened as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s recently wrapped Kim Ki-duk retrospective.