Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Byun Young-joo, "The Murmuring" (1995)

The Murmuring (Najeun moksori). 1995. Directed by Byun Young-joo. Produced by Shin Soo-yeon. Cinematography by Kim Yong-taek. Edited by Park Gok-ji. Music by Oh Yoon-seok and Cho Byung-hee. Sound by Jang Ho-jun and Lee Young-kil.

This August 15 marks the 64th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is given different names in the countries involved. In the U.S., it known as Victory over Japan Day; in Korea, it is called Liberation Day, since Japan’s surrender meant the end of colonial rule. Among the many continuing legacies of the war is the plight of the “comfort women,” an estimated 200,000 women (some as young as twelve) from Korea, China, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, and other countries who were kidnapped or otherwise tricked into sexual slavery, forced to service Japanese soldiers. The misery for these women did not end with the war; they continued to be victimized by both sides of the conflict – by Japan’s continued refusal to this day to give an official apology or offer adequate compensation to survivors, and by the shame placed upon them by their home societies, forcing them to spend decades living in isolation and shamed silence. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that former comfort women began to come forward and tell their stories, and more importantly, to petition the Japanese government for reparations. The vast majority of comfort women (80-90 percent) were taken from Korea, a colony of Japan during the war, and their stories form the basis of Byun Young-joo’s extraordinary documentary trilogy on the comfort women of Korea: The Murmuring (1995), Habitual Sadness (1997), and My Own Breathing (1999). Taken together, this trilogy (called the “Low Voice” trilogy, after the Korean titles of the first two installments) is one of the monumental works of world documentary, entirely the equal of such films as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Marcel OphulsThe Sorrow and the Pity. Much like Shoah, Byun eschews the normal clichéd methods of documentary filmmaking, such as archival footage, dramatizations, and expert talking heads, concentrating on contemporary footage of her subjects bearing witness to a horrific period of their own lives and their country’s history. The one time Byun breaks with this is in a brief pictorial montage showing Japanese atrocities in China, which serves to remind us that the comfort women’s experiences existed in a larger context of Japanese war crimes, and was equally as brutal and deserving of close examination.

Byun’s first documentary, A Woman-Being in Asia (1993), dealt with the sex tourism industry in Asia, focusing on prostitution on Jeju Island. Byun and her crew were mostly dissatisfied with the results, feeling they had come into it with too much an imposed point a view, and a subsequent ambivalence toward the subject matter that filtered down to how they dealt with their interviewees. However, Byun serendipitously stumbled upon the subject of her next film when one of the prostitutes she interviewed revealed that her deceased mother was a comfort woman who became a prostitute after the war to pay for her own mother’s operation. Her decision to pursue this subject resulted in this trilogy.

The subtitle of The Murmuring, released in the 50th anniversary year of the end of World War II, is “A Woman-Being in Asia: The Second Report,” signaling that this new film was both a follow-up to and an improvement on her first film. Largely influenced by Japanese documentary pioneer Shinsuke Ogawa, Byun radically changed her methods of relating to her subjects in this film. Much of the film takes place in a house known as “Nanum,” or “House of Sharing,” a group home in Haehwa-dong, Seoul supported by Buddhist groups, where a number of former comfort women reside. Byun spent a few months before filming simply living with the women, until she gained their trust and they felt ready to tell their stories on camera. The stories they tell are truly heartbreaking; the women were taken at a very young age, and were commonly tricked with the promise of employment. One woman speaks of trying to kill herself on the way back home from Japan, because of her shame and knowing that she was effectively ruined for marriage; in terms of the rigid Confucian patriarchy that prevailed then, the fact that she served Japanese soldiers against her will mattered little. Most of the women living in the house suffer from numerous physical ailments, much of it resulting from their sexual enslavement; many returned with venereal disease and have scars on their stomachs from surgery. One woman talks about her wish to die, to end her continued suffering. Byun films these women in simple, functional camera setups, allowing them the visual and temporal space to tell their stories. Some confess their shame about telling these stories, which is quite understandable considering that it was only a few years before, in 1991, that Kim Hak-soon was the first comfort woman to publicly tell her story on television, making it possible for others to come forward.

Byun also documents the weekly protests organized by The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, which still continue today. Since January 2002, they have stood outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul every Wednesday at noon, year in and year out, regardless of the weather, to make several demands of the Japanese government. They insist that Japan make an official apology and acknowledge their responsibility for the plight of comfort women; give whole-hearted compensation to the women and their relatives; erect a monument to the women who died (about 70 percent died before the end of the war); and include this history in Japanese textbooks. To this day, none of these demands have been met, and therefore the protests continue. Byun shows in the film that Korean governments are also partly responsible for this state of affairs, since for many years they were very reluctant to press the issue, loath to jeopardize trade agreements and other compacts with Japan.

Byun also traveled to China to interview Ha Koon-ja and Hong Gang Lim, two comfort women who were never repatriated to Korea, effectively exiled because of their shame. These interviews provide some of the most powerful moments of the film: Ha tearfully recounts being forced to serve as many as twenty soldiers per day, and Hong, starkly framed so that her face floats in the darkness, relates the brutal story of having her vagina mutilated because of soldiers' complaints that, because she was taken so young, that she was “too small.” This section of the film also contains the footage of other Japanese war atrocities.

However, as sad and horrific as the stories these women tell are, this is only one part of Byun’s film. The Murmuring is also a very inspiring portrait of the women’s resiliency in the face of their hardship. They are still able to laugh and enjoy other people’s company, and most importantly, to sing. There are many scenes in the film of the women singing the liberation and love songs of their youth, both in the house and at the weekly protests. This speaks to an inner spirit that the horrors of war cannot extinguish. The women also express themselves through painting, which also gives them an outlet to cope with their memories and to heal their damaged psyches. The Murmuring is a rich and revealing film, quite literally so in the film’s last shot, as the camera pans across the naked torso of one of the women. Byun’s film is a beautifully constructed vessel allowing the “low voices” of these women to speak out fully and tell the collective story of this tragic period of history, a story that has yet to reach a fully satisfying conclusion.

Links for resources and more information:

Nanum (House of Sharing)

The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan

Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues

Friday, August 14, 2009

Review: Ronald Bronstein's "Frownland"

Frownland. 2007. Written, directed and edited by Ronald Bronstein. Produced by Marc Raybin. Cinematography by Sean Price Williams. Music by Paul Grimstad.

Cast: Dore Mann (Keith), Paul Grimstad (Charles), David Sandholm (Sandy), Carmine Marino (Carmine), Mary Wall (Laura), Paul Grant (Exam-man).

Whether you love or hate Ronald Bronstein’s debut feature, the unclassifiable and astonishing slice of New York miserablism known as Frownland, one thing is irrefutable: there has never been a film quite like this one. There are some discernible strands evident in Frownland’s cinematic DNA. This film has been associated with so-called “mumblecore,” referring to a loose confederation of recent American independent filmmakers, many of whom make their features with close friends and other collaborators, working outside the mainstream industry, and whose films boast a lo-fi aesthetic and an off-the-cuff, improvisational feel. Comparisons can also be made with the kitchen-sink dramatics of John Cassavetes – the pathologically inarticulate protagonist could be a much more extreme male counterpart to Gena Rowlands' troubled character in A Woman Under the Influence. There are also excerpts within the film of a Buster Keaton film, which highlights the fact that much of Frownland has no dialogue, as well as the wickedly deadpan humor that sits cheek-by-jowl with the misery on display. The film’s eerie electronic score and its grotesqueries of human behavior also bring to mind David Lynch’s Eraserhead. However, such comparisons in this case can take you only so far. Bronstein’s film, more than anything else, is as pure and uncompromised an artistic vision as any I’ve ever seen. The viewer is pulled into the grubby world of its singularly maladroit and unpleasant main character and the other people in his orbit, and is forced to relate to the work on its own terms, take it or leave it.

The term “sad sack” doesn’t even begin to describe our (anti)hero, Keith (Dore Mann), a man as deferential and easy-to-please as he is off-putting and annoying. At the film’s outset, he is interrupted from a blissful night of watching a monster movie while eating popcorn off an open oven door by a frantic phone call from his sometime girlfriend Laura (Mary Wall, Bronstein’s wife). The next scene establishes Keith’s method of communicating, or more accurately, mis-communicating with others: instead of complete sentences or thoughts, what emerges from Keith’s mouth are half-formed syllables and painfully extended pauses, as he physically struggles to get words to come out. This is extremely exasperating to those with the misfortune to have to speak with him in the film, as well as some viewers in the audience. Laura is no less inarticulate, her violent, snot-laden crying jags precluding any sort of coherent speech on her part. She bolts from the car in disgust, and Keith does something very bizarre and, at first, inexplicable: he pulls his eyes open and makes groaning noises for what feels like an interminably long time. Soon it becomes apparent that he is doing this to induce fake tears, to impress Laura with his supposed sensitivity to her distress. This scene is a great example of the humor that exists in abundance in this film, an aspect of Frownland that gets criminally short shrift in most reviews of this film. Much more than the miserably depressive work it has been made out to be, Bronstein brilliantly balances hilarity and pain in a uniquely beautiful way.

Keith has what is probably one of the most unrewarding professions possible: door-to-door solicitation for a dubious charity supposedly benefiting multiple sclerosis. He recites the same script to each prospect about a (probably fictional) brother who suffers from this disease. He is perpetually on the verge of being fired by his ever-exasperated boss Carmine (Carmine Marino). His home life offers no respite from the misery: his roommate Charles (Paul Grimstad, who also composed the film’s score) is an imperious aspiring musician who spends his nights composing cheesy electronic music, and barely tolerates Keith’s presence in the house, this despite the fact that he is unemployed and not keeping up with his share of the rent and utility payments. Keith, ever afraid to give offense, delays broaching the subject. This leads to a hilarious scene in which by all rights Keith, as the aggrieved party, should have the upper hand, but instead is subjected to a wicked role reversal by Charles, who rather than being the least bit apologetic, unleashes a vicious round of invective on his hapless, squirming victim.

Keith has what passes for a best friend in Sandy (David Sandholm), who treats him as little more than a nuisance to be rid of as soon as humanly possible. In a very telling scene, Keith worms his way into Sandy’s apartment one night after coming there to retrieve a name tag he left behind and asks to watch a Buster Keaton film with him. Keith promptly falls asleep, and Sandy takes advantage of this to fast forward through the tape to the end, after which he wakes Keith up and sends him home. Keith: “Can I call you later?” Sandy: “I’ll be asleep for a really long time.”

Having neither a plot nor a resolution and structured as a connected series of tragicomic vignettes, Frownland is most remarkable in the way it continually keeps us off balance by not allowing us to be complacent in any sense, in characterizations or atmosphere. As unpleasant as these characters are, and as few redeeming qualities they may have, it is possible to have at least some sympathy for them. Much of the humor in the film, as well as the despair, stems from their unsuccessful attempts to communicate with others and make sense of the world around them. Shot in raw, textured 16-millimeter film, subsequently blown up to 35-millimeter, which emphasizes the grain, giving the images a nearly tactile quality, Frownland is framed mostly in uncomfortably intimate close-ups, a potent representation of how literally in-your-face this film is. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ background is in documentaries, and he brings this aesthetic to Frownland with exhilaratingly inventive results, following the film’s unhinged protagonist, as well as its other characters, with a chaotic intensity that matches their troubled psyches. A deeply personal (and largely autobiographical) labor of love shot piecemeal over five years by Bronstein, a NYC-area freelance projectionist, Frownland is as singular and unforgettable an experience as you will ever have at the movies. It is a bold, bloody, spit and snot-covered middle finger to the hordes of faux-quirky Juno and Little Miss Sunshine clones that are laughingly described as “independent.” It’s not for everyone, by any means, but for those that are sufficiently open-minded and adventurous, Frownland reaps rich artistic rewards.

Frownland will screen again at 7:30 this Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art (where Bronstein works as a projectionist – did he project his own film at the screening I attended this afternoon?), as part of the series, “Recent Film Acquisitions: Continuum.” It will also be released on DVD September 29, on Factory 25, a new music and DVD label.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Li Ying's "Yasukuni"

Yasukuni. 2007. Written and directed by Li Ying. Produced by Zhang Yuhui, Zhang Huijun, and Hu Yun. Cinematography by Yasuhiro Hotta and Li Ying. Edited by Yuji Oshige and Li Ying. Sound by Takayuki Nakamura.

Li Ying's eye-opening and intensely visceral documentary Yasukuni, a controversial film about the equally controversial shrine commemorating fallen WWII soldiers in the heart of Tokyo, opens today for a one-week run at Film Forum, timed to the August 15th anniversary of Japan's surrender. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at last year's New York Asian and Japan Cuts film festivals.

Li Ying’s extraordinary documentary Yasukuni examines one of the most politically contentious spots of land in Japan: the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in central Tokyo, a memorial to Japan’s fallen soldiers during World War II. Or, to be more accurate, it is the final spiritual resting place of some of the most notorious war criminals of the Pacific War. In August 15, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender, Japan’s then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi caused a major international scandal by going to pay his respects at the shrine. This act, in effect, gave official imprimatur to a site that, while celebrated and venerated by many, for many others – Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese, Okinawan – is a symbol of Japan’s war of oppression and subjugation of the Asian continent. To those and others who oppose the shrine, this would be akin to placing a Nazi memorial in the middle of Israel. Koizumi justified his actions, as we see in the film, by claiming that it was “a matter of freedom of belief.” The speech he gives to the crowd at Yasukuni elaborates on this. He claims that his prayers represent a wish for all wars to end, and a gesture of respect to those who fought bravely and died for their country. However, the glorification of the military on display in the exercises of the shrine worshipers who prance around wearing WWII-era gear, and exhort with megaphones the glory of those soldiers, gives the lie to Kozumi’s claims of pacifist motives.

What is most remarkable about Li’s film is his approach to this material. As a Chinese, he clearly has strong feelings about the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during the war. However, he eschews a Michael Moore-type in-your-face confrontational approach, which proves to be a wise strategy. There is no narration; he structures the film as a series of mini-plays, all of which illustrate what this shrine means to people at all points of the political spectrum. There are those who support Koizumi’s praying at the shrine, and see it as simply a benign war memorial. There is also Chiwas Ari, the Taiwanese woman who gives us a very different perspective, speaking powerfully to the role that those countries colonized by Japan played in the war. Colonial subjects were forced to fight on the side of Japan, and some of them are enshrined in Yasukuni along with native Japanese. Chiwas Ari’s impassioned plea for the return of her father’s remains is a virtual aria that is incredibly moving. For comic relief, we have the clueless American whose ham-fisted attempt to support Koizumi, combined with the stunningly boneheaded idea to wave a big American flag in the middle of the shrine, sends this quixotic figure packing by an angry crowd. The protestors who interrupt the speeches at the anniversary event are set upon by some of the crowd in a disturbingly violent confrontation, as they are chased away and beaten by members of the angry mob. Li’s chaotic camera framing, as it does in much of the film, puts the viewer in the center of the action, giving us a visceral sense of the physical dangers of dissent in this space. This is history as blood sport.

Far from the action, tucked away from all the fighting, is Naoji Kariya, the last living Yasukuni sword-maker, still continuing to practice his craft in isolation. The mythology of Yasukuni is bound up in the sword, which is the spiritual symbol of the shrine. Li constantly prods him for memories of the war, and the long, painful silences that follow Li’s questions tell their own story. Whatever memories he has remain hidden away inside him, and hidden from us. He is a curious figure; a metaphor, perhaps, for the historical memory of Japan. He seems unwilling to confront the past, yet is unable to move forward, stuck in a limbo where everything is reduced to rote, refined physical movement, craft divorced from meaning. The swords he has crafted over the years likely were used to commit some of the worst atrocities visited by Japanese soldiers upon their victims, one example of which is the chilling account of a 100-man beheading competition engaged in by two soldiers who were executed and later enshrined at Yasukuni. But Kariya willfully separates himself from this reality, and his stoic silence in response to Li’s queries about the war represents an unsettling side to vaunted notions of Japanese propriety.

The film’s concluding montage steps away from the warring factions and provides evidence from the historical record that demonstrates the truth behind the propaganda peddled by the shrine’s war museum, and the attempts to whitewash history by the petitioners who wish to “refute” the 1937 Nanking massacre, which they claim is a fiction created by aggrieved Chinese. The response to this film by Japan’s ultra right-wing factions all but demands its own follow-up feature. Harassment and death threats directed toward Li and his producers, along with relentless pressure from conservatives, caused the film’s initial Tokyo release to be cancelled in early 2008. (It finally premiered in Tokyo in May 2008, with heavy police security at screenings.)

Ten years in the making, Yasukuni is more than simply a film. Li puts his considerable journalistic and artistic skills in the service of the best use of the power of images: to illuminate, to enlighten, to cut through self-serving rhetoric and propaganda, and reveal unadorned truth.

Click here for more info on Yasukuni and to purchase tickets.

Yasukuni trailer:

Li Ying's press conference following the cancellation of his film's initial Tokyo release:

A report from Al Jazeera English on Yasukuni:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Blog Awards

I've been running this blog for about two and a half years now, and while I do know that I have at least some readers, as evidenced by my Google Analytics stats and the comments on the posts, sometimes it's hard to know if there's anyone really out there. However, incontrovertible proof has come my way via this blog award:

-- bestowed upon me by the estimable Neil Fulwood, author of the very fine read The Agitation of the Mind, which I highly recommend. Thanks, Neil!

So, in that generous spirit, I'll spread the love by passing on this award to some other blogs that are well worth your attention. I won't annotate these other than to give them all very hearty recommendations:

Criterion Reflections

Critic After Dark

Dennis Grunes

G. Indiana

Jonathan Rosenbaum

jonk heap

Korea Pop Wars

Lessons From the School of Inattention

Observations on film art and Film Art


Beyond the Multiplex (Andrew O'Hehir)


Seen in Jeonju

Shooting Down Pictures

Some Came Running


Thanks for the Use of the Hall

The Criterion Contraption

The Evening Class

The Moviegoer

Tom Vick: Asian Cinema Plus

Also, a very honorable mention to Catherine Grant's Film Studies For Free, an invaluable resource collecting links to scholarly film writing on the web.

Thanks to all the writers above (and the many more I don't have space to include here) for consistently providing excellent and inspiring writing, and last but most certainly not least, thanks to all my readers from around the world (from 74 countries at last count), for taking the time to visit my site. I hope it is, and continues to be, worth your time.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Bourne Cinema Filmography: Park Chan-wook, "I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK" (2006)

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK (Saibogujiman kwenchana). 2006. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Written by Chung Seo-kyung and Park Chan-wook. Produced by Lee Chun-yeong. Cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon. Edited by Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum. Music by Hong Dae-seong and Hong Yu-jin. Production design by Ryu Seong-hie. Costume design by Cho Sang-kyung. Sound by Jeong Jin-wook, Kim Suk-won and Kim Chang-sub.

Cast: Im Su-jeong (Cha Young-goon), Jeong Ji-hoon [Rain] (Park Il-soon), Choi Hee-jin (Choi Seul-gi), Oh Dal-soo (Shin Duk-cheon), Park Jun-myeon (Gop-dan), Kim Byeong-ok (Judge), Lee Yong-nyeo (Young-goon's mother), Yu Ho-jeong (Il-soon's mother).

Park Chan-wook's latest film, the vampire movie Thirst, which opened yesterday, was to me a supreme disappointment. Much better is his previous film, I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, a strange and charming romantic comedy set in a mental hospital. Perhaps Thirst will do well enough to encourage an intrepid distributor to make this film available in the U.S., on DVD at the very least. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at the 2007 New York Asian Film Festival.

The oeuvre of Park Chan-wook seems designed to confound auteurists looking for a consistent directorial signature. His films are almost schizophrenically diverse: he followed up his little-seen early films Moon is the Sun's Dream (1992) and Threesome (1997) with the massive blockbuster hit Joint Security Area (2000). His next film, the grim, pitch-dark revenge film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), confused and disappointed most audiences. However, this was the beginning of a new phase in his career, the so-called “revenge trilogy,” which continued with Oldboy (2003) and Lady Vengeance (2005), which were much more successful, and brought him his current high international profile, culminating with the Grand Prix (second place) prize at Cannes for Oldboy.

Park’s next film, the sweet and delightfully oddball romance I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, once again threw audiences for a loop, having now become accustomed to the ornate style of the trilogy. The result was disappointing box office returns upon its release in Korea. While the film is not quite at the level of his previous films (especially Lady Vengeance, his best to date), it contains charms enough of its own, and a unique visual style that beautifully reflects the unhinged nature of the inhabitants of the mental asylum where practically the entire film is set.

The film’s core romance occurs between Young-goon (Im Su-jeong), a young woman convinced she is a cyborg, and consequently refusing to eat, making her alarmingly thin; and Il-soon (pop music megastar Rain), a young man who is the resident thief, stealing both physical and imaginary possessions from the other asylum inmates. Il-soon has made it his mission to cure Young-goon, and he enlists the help of the other inmates.

While I’m a Cyborg may at first seem like a radical departure for Park, it’s not as dissimilar from his previous films as one would think. Park’s regular cinematographer Jeong Jeong-hoon provides the film with a bright pop-art palette that enhances the fantastical nature of the proceedings. Young-goon’s violent revenge fantasies where she transforms herself into a literal killing machine, mowing down the “white suits” en masse, shooting them with bullets out of her index fingers, provides the sort of bloody scene we have seen before from Park (although done here with a hint of self-parody).

The film’s tone is a strange mixture of whimsicality and darker elements. Young-goon’s habits, such as talking to her fellow machines (a vending machine, lamps, and other electrical objects) and “charging” herself by licking batteries in lieu of actual nourishment, are presented as charming eccentricities. However, the scenes where she is force fed and given shock treatment are rather more disturbing. The asylum setting, much as it does in such previous films as Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (as well as Ken Kesey’s novel), and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted, lends itself to social commentary, the asylum being an all too apt metaphor for the world at large, especially how people are subjected to harsh societal control by those in authority. Young-goon and Il-soon’s disorders are caused by their family histories: Young-goon witnessed her grandmother forcibly committed when she was younger, and Il-goon’s parental abandonment created his desire to disappear, rendered visually in scenes where other people dwarf him as he becomes ever smaller.

Park creates a compellingly fantastic universe in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, confirming his status as one of cinema’s supreme stylists.


The first ten minutes: